The control of urban development (acquiring planning permission) is an absolute in ensuring that local neighbourhoods as we know them are maintained for the benefit of everyone. The economy on which we all depend itself depends on growth and expansion so we accept that there will be change: that the built environment will grow and develop, but this expansion should be monitored and controlled.
The rules and regulations should be acceptable to the vast majority, with restrictions and requirements which limit factors such as height, mass, appearance, materials and function (the use of the building). There is a danger here that this might produce buildings that are clones of their neighbours, for example, a height limit in a city centre produces buildings all of that height.
Beyond this there are assets that deserve greater protection than that offered by the general planning acts, for example: heritage buildings, ancient monuments and green spaces and it is the last of these that can cause the greatest debate, particularly when it is simply the ‘green belt’ around an existing community.
Broadly speaking, there are very few ‘Green belts’ enshrined in law; the majority of green spaces around our towns are protected by ‘local plans’. The possibility of development within an existing urban area is considered at an early stage and various sites allocated for various types of future use. By default, the green spaces immediately outside the urban area will have been considered by the adjoining local authority who, generally speaking, will limit development to existing village envelopes.
All of which doesn’t take away the pressure on these very green spaces, particularly by the large house builders who are always on the lookout for potential sites, particularly green fields – virgin land that is easy to develop – as opposed to brownfield sites that comes with a host of hidden issues which potentially make the development more expensive.
This all leads to the government’s proposed changes to the planning system which have been out for public consultation during the autumn; proposed changes which have raised concern across the political spectrum.
One of the big concerns is that the proposal is too dismissive of what currently works; a second is the scale and pace of the proposed change. The current planning system does need some reform; our elected representatives need more power to tackle climate change, the ability to insist on greener buildings on green sites with trees and clean air, uninterrupted wildlife corridors and open access lawns around public buildings, new office blocks and residential developments.
What we must not do is to throw away the bits of the current legislation that work; the current proposals are too dismissive, particularly in respect of public consultation. I realise it isn’t perfect, that for the majority of schemes the public rarely get involved but the opportunity to comment when affected by a developer’s proposal is a democratic right that shouldn’t be lost in the haste to make the process of obtaining the right to build quicker.
The National House Builders Council is critical of the existing planning system, suggesting that it is a major factor in the delay in meeting housing targets. But isn’t it these very same developers that are sitting on banks of land on which planning permission has already been granted? – an asset which is gaining value whilst lying in abeyance, part of their stock in trade awaiting the developer’s decision as to when the time is right (the price realised of the houses they build is favourable to them).
I submitted my comments to Civic Voice who assembled a comprehensive reply to the consultation. We await the government’s next move.