High house prices, and the difficulties for the younger generation and the less well-off members of society in entering the housing market, have exercised the minds of politicians of all parties for some time. Searches for simple solutions to the perceived crisis have in the past tended to concentrate on building more houses. More recently attention has focussed on the planning system, which is being criticised as overly complicated, cumbersome, slow, and effectively a block on development.
Whether or not this is the problem, there are now a number of new government initiatives aimed at charting a smoother way through the planning system for development interests, notably those concerned with housing. In August 2020, the Government launched the Planning for the Future White Paper, which was effectively a consultation paper on proposals for a future Planning Bill designed to address the ‘shortage of beautiful, high-quality homes and places where people want to live and work’. The quest for more attractive development reflected the aspirations contained in the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission co-chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton, and it was no doubt thought that this would go towards mitigating the widespread ‘NIMBY’ opposition to the poor quality ‘pattern book’ estates being inflicted upon existing settlements. Local authorities were asked to focus on identifying land in three categories:
- Growth Areas - suitable for substantial development, where planning permission would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Local Plan.
- Renewal Areas - suitable for some development (eg ‘gentle densification’);
- Protected Areas - where development would be restricted (eg conservation areas).
The White Paper proposed new national development management policies, with local authorities spelling out site and area requirements alongside the development of local design codes - there was a new emphasis on resident engagement in the early stages of the preparation of these policies but, controversially, this community involvement would be limited to the early stages of the plan. Residents would be denied an opportunity to object to individual design code compliant proposals in growth areas, because these would receive automatic outline permission.
At the same time, a government algorithm was released, setting housing targets for individual local authorities, based on local house prices. Given that 80% of high value areas were in London and the South East - the very areas arguably under the most pressure from ill-judged development, the proposals met with near unanimous opposition, including representatives from the housing sector itself. Unsurprisingly, the proposals were abandoned in December 2020, and it is now understood that the twenty biggest cities will take a larger share, with a shift to the North and Midlands, presumably in deference to the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, and there will be a concentration on brownfield sites (ie previously developed land) and densification (as noted above). In the meantime, other ‘minor’ changes to the planning process have been implemented, particularly with regard to ‘permitted development’ (development that can be carried out without the need for planning permission). This has allowed offices to be changed to residential, high-street shops to be turned into housing and up to two additional storeys being added to an existing dwelling. Luckily on the Dulwich Estate we have the Scheme of Management which will effectively prevent permitted development rights being implemented but this will not apply in East and West Dulwich. At the same time, Southwark and Lambeth Councils are attempting to keep some sort of planning control in key shopping streets by the use of Article 4 Directives.
The original proposals met with widespread opposition, given an added twist by the startling Chesham and Amersham by election result, which provided additional evidence of the depth of local feeling on the subject. More recently, there is a now a new government department charged with delivering the Planning Bill (ie. the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities), with a new Minister, Michael Gove, and an announcement ‘pausing’ the draft Bill, pending further consideration of the proposals. The recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission are to be carried forward by a new Office for Place under Nicholas Boys Smith, charged with delivering design codes to every part of the country, and there is now a National Model Design Code to work from. A selection of local authorities has been charged with piloting the proposals, including our own Southwark.
The final outcome of the revised draft Planning Bill consultation is not known, and there are hints that residents may yet be able to keep the right to comment on individual applications after all, but it might be prudent for members to involve themselves as closely as possible with councils in putting together design guides/codes reflecting the character and appearance of the different parts of our areas. Much of Dulwich is covered by conservation areas, each with their own existing character appraisals, but for those areas outside, including East and West Dulwich, residents should press for complete character area assessments in order to provide a proper basis for attaining appropriate design code coverage. Other issues to be looked out for include a likely pressure to develop Metropolitan Open Land - a key feature in keeping the Dulwich area ‘green’, and proposals for the redevelopment of houses in large gardens
In the past, local authorities have been singularly unsuccessful in drawing residents into the plan process, and this becomes even more problematic if new plans have to be prepared as soon as the changes to the planning system have been settled, and if the whole process now has to be completed over a period of thirty months. Residents need to press local councillors and our local MP, Helen Hayes, who has a particular expertise in planning matters, to take account of their views and make sure that concerns are reflected in the policies agreed.