England’s new planning reforms

George Osborne’s proposed changes to the planning system will make things easier for developers. But is that a good thing? Simon Wilson reports.

What's changed?

According to the chancellor, George Osborne, needless planning delays cost the economy £3bn a year. England's planning regulations are set out in 1,000 pages of policy and 6,000 pages of notes. The draft policy framework replaces them with 52 pages of guidance to local authorities on where and when to accept applications for new houses, shops, amenities and infrastructure. The reforms are designed to give developers more clarity and certainty over what is likely to be approved and to give more power to local communities under the government's localism' agenda. The new regime affects about 66% of England, the government says: areas designated as green belt, national parks or other similarly protected areas will, it claims, be unaffected.

Do we need this new policy?

According to statistics cited by The Times, only 10% of English land is developed, and half of that is accounted for by gardens. Overall, houses account for just 1.1% of space. Whereas the number of households has tripled in the past century, we are building fewer houses than since before World War II 80% of them on brown field sites. All this pressure on housing has underpinned sky-high prices for houses which have risen faster in the countryside than towns making it all but impossible for the next generation to find somewhere to live. Supporters of the government argue that without reform of England's outrageously complex planning laws, the countryside will continue its evolution into a theme park colonised by wealthy second-home owners, rather than a place for all to live and work.

So why the outcry?

The main objection of the National Trust, the Campaign for Rural England, and many other similar groups, is that the framework takes as its starting point the need to stimulate economic growth rather than to protect the environment. Critics argue that this turns the purpose of planning on its head: rather than protecting the public good, the new regime favours private, commercial interests. It will lead to poor-quality developments and the despoilation of the countryside by everything from wind farms to car parks. Some critics question why the policy of giving priority to brownfield sites is being overturned when it seemed to be working (last year 76% of new dwellings were on previously developed sites, up from 55% in 1989). They also argue that the goal of handing more power to communities and making life easier for developers is a nonsense, since most existing communities want less new development, not more. How far all these fears are justified depends to some extent on how much of the framework survives the consultation process, which ends next month.

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Will the plans work?

A Whitehall examination of the framework, known as a Regulatory Impact Assessment, anticipates that it will indeed increase the number of new projects, as developers gain more confidence that their plans will be approved and so make more applications. In 2009/2010, there were 12,400 planning applications for major' developments those that cover

more than a hectare (2.47 acres) of land or having 10,763 square feet of floor space. By way of example, the assessment projects a 5% increase in such applications and a 5% rise in the approval rate. It also anticipates an extra 1,200 major developments and 11,000 smaller ones each year. Whether that will actually happen is moot. In practice, the vast bulk of planning applications are already passed (80% of the 439,900 made in the year to March 2011) and, despite the vehemence on both sides of the current argument, the new planning rules are unlikely to spark a sudden wave of building. This is especially so given that the current stagnation in the construction industry is at least as much to do with the dearth of credit financing as with planning red tape.

Should the reforms be welcomed?


1. Communities cannot survive if the next generation is systematically priced out; the current planning system fails to provide the jobs or housing the countryside needs to survive.

2. Cutting red tape and simplifying the system will make it easier to build things and will promote economic growth.

3. The name The Daily Telegraph has given to its vociferous campaign against it "Hands Off Our Land" says it all: the planning minister Greg Clark is right to accuse critics of "nihilistic selfishness".


1. It is impossible to give more power to communities and cut regulation on businesses, since many communities will want to block development, not ease it.

2. If it ain't bust don't fix it: without the strong planning system we have had since the 1940s, England's green and pleasant land would be far less green or pleasant.

3 . Laxer planning will promote urban sprawl rather than economic growth, as capital is sucked into unproductive speculation; look at Ireland and Greece.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.