The future of planning in rural areas

“Excavator 1” by billjacobus1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rural communities in the recently created unitary Dorset Council area are working hard and democratically to make Neighbourhood Plans. The bases of these plans lie in the traditions and desire for continuity of small rural towns and villages. This cultural heritage is under attack now and is further threatened by proposed changes to the planning system. The threat is from top-down development targets to be set in Whitehall, then from the probable long-term failure of Dorset Council (and others like it across the nation) to meet those targets. Such a failure will accelerate a developer free-for-all under the terms of the policies enshrined in the new Planning White Paper, issued for comment at the beginning of August.

‘Planning for the Future’ was issued with an accompanying fanfare from the Prime Minister: “Build, Build, Build”, he said.  This particular three-word slogan supposedly heralds a ‘New Deal on jobs, skills and new infrastructure’ and promises to ‘build back better’ in the wake of coronavirus, for the benefit of ‘every corner of the country.’

The essence of the White Paper is to:

  • improve the content of, and process to produce, Local Plans and thereby support national strategic environmental, economic and societal goals;
  • simplify the categorisation of areas of land into (a) ‘Growth’ areas – yes, you can build; (b) ‘Protected’ areas – no, you can’t build; (c) ‘Renewal’ areas – it depends on what you want to build;
  • extensively digitise the whole system from Local Plan to Planning Application and Approval so as to accelerate and automate many aspects of decision-making.
  • standardise a Community Infrastructure Levy, payable on all housing developments.

The changes laid out in the White Paper predate the onset of the virus. At their heart is the desire of this government to ‘level up’ nationwide. The White Paper proposes an enhanced central government grip through the setting of targets and national benchmarks. This centralisation will come at the expense of local decision-making on priorities and the diverse wants and needs of individual communities. The changes also risk becoming a developers’ charter by creating a free-for-all as and when local authorities fail to meet targets.

Why might such a free-for-all happen? Current government policy requires Local Authorities to demonstrate that they have identified specific sites for building to meet local housing need or other strategies they’ve adopted. New, standardised national projections of housing need imposed on Local Authorities mean many will fail to meet targets for actual construction and the forward availability of land for development, the so-called housing land supply. If this happens, under the current National Planning Policy Framework, local plans including all neighbourhood plans will be shorn of authority as the weighting of assessments switches to favour developers.

Is this likely to happen? It is happening in Dorset now and it is a racing certainty it will continue so to do. According to CPRE – The Countryside Charity (formerly known as the Council for the Protection of Rural England), the government’s algorithm for housing need in the county is almost 50 per cent greater than that defined in Dorset’s existing Local Plans and 100 per cent greater than the average number of houses actually being built. There is no chance the county will meet the required targets. Also, so-called affordable housing (housing offered at less than the local market median price) is currently a requirement of any development of 10 houses or more. It is disliked by developers because it lowers the attractiveness of the balance of a development. Developers go out of their way to avoid it. As the drive to ‘build, build, build’ comes on, there is a danger that affordable housing remains a necessary evil in the eyes of the developers resulting in concentrations of lower quality construction.

Aren’t we just being NIMBYs? No. There is a hard edge to this. Much of Dorset’s economic activity comes from its environment: agriculture, rural industries and tourism. If you pave it over, create larger centres of population, more dormitory towns and longer travel-to-work times, you start to destroy the fabric of the place. There will be promises, too – promises that the services and amenities, transport and communication improvements will follow. As they say in the aviation industry down here, “Pigs fuelled and ready to fly.”

But isn’t digitisation a good thing, using digital maps and electronic documentation instead of creaking paper-based systems? Having our house sale in the hands of an e-based Amazon equivalent is one thing; seeing our landscape and way of life forced to meet standards set by distant and unknowing hands with decisions being made automatically according to an algorithm is quite another. Digitisation should benefit communities as well as developers and must not supplant local democratic controls. There is widespread discontent about the impact of yet another algorithmic approach with some 70 Conservative backbenchers already demanding clarification.

Bourton in Dorset is a village of about 800 souls. It is 15 miles from any large town. It offers no employment opportunities, is on the edge of services and has made an environmentally focused, properly sustainable Neighbourhood Plan. Just because the new unitary Dorset Council is failing to meet its housing land supply target, should Bourton be greatly increased in size? Will this help solve the national housing shortage or just add to the local carbon footprint? Will the changes in the White Paper improve our decision-making or just create a developers’ paradise? Real progress will happen when communities are enabled and empowered to plan their futures by differentiating rather than homogenising.

So, what should be done instead of the White Paper proposals? The existing system does need an overhaul. Local Plans take too long to produce and are out of date the moment they are published. Planning applications and approvals are cumbersome and expensive. There is a need for digitisation, but not at the expense of local inputs and assessments and certainly not at the expense of local democratic accountability. In Dorset, many believe there is a good case to be made for Local Plans that:

  • truly take input from local people and reflect differing needs and conditions. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach applied across towns as diverse as Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Sturminster Newton, Poundbury and Shaftesbury, for example;
  • strengthen key aspects of the rural way of life: agriculture and other rural industry, sustainable village communities and properly served market towns. There should be opportunities for investment in innovation, new industries and workplaces and a reduced reliance on carbon-intensive transportation;
  • deliver protection to our heritage of beautiful places and our environment. Plans are needed that apply a rigorous brownfield-first approach, require quality before quantity and reflect the joined-up needs of housing, communications, amenities and services.

In the policies and judgements that are applied to community infrastructure, we should see local democratic control that ensures:

  • targeted investment and appropriate partnerships that can address the housing needs of all in a community more effectively than the formulaic ‘affordable’ housing requirement or any successor scheme;
  • interventions that ensure the young or disadvantaged are not priced out by second home-owning or driven into low quality, dense housing with few amenities or services.;
  • priority is given to climate and environmental considerations to reduce travel-to-work, improve the efficiency of new buildings and create carbon neutral homes and communities;
  • pump-priming policies and partnerships to support new local business locations and other workplaces.

The government is consulting on these matters. The White Paper consultation closes at the end of October. The document contains the questions to which the consultation wants the answers – but many important questions are not asked. We need to find a balance between efficiency and effectiveness. ‘Efficiency’ as digital, automated, algorithmic management of our landscapes, and populated spaces will predominantly benefit those able to capitalise on the technology. ‘Effectiveness’ means that whilst contributing to national needs tempered by local factors, continuities and priorities, there is local democratic responsibility and accountability in our planning system: we need more of that, not less. As a nation we need to ‘level up’ by targeting investment rather than investing in targets.