Government consultation papers that are published in early August always need to be watched carefully, and the Planning White Paper, published at midnight on 6th August 2020, will need particular scrutiny. In his foreword to the White Paper, tautologically entitled ‘Planning for the Future’ (well you wouldn’t plan for the past, would you?), the Prime Minister promises ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’.

The government has to grapple with keeping its party donors happy, many of whom are in the construction industry, and its constituents, who are often opposed to large scale insensitive development in their towns and villages. The government has committed to ‘solving’ the housing crisis, but they have limited their manoeuvrability by relying almost exclusively on the private sector to provide new housing.

The Government’s housing ambitions are bold: 300,000 homes are to be built per year in England, a figure never before achieved by the market alone. It proposes to do this by a combination of further deregulation to satisfy the industry, while giving more powers to ‘local people’ to determine the design and form of development and achieve more ‘beautiful’ places.  This latter proposal builds on the recommendations of the Government’s ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton (declaration of interest: I was an adviser to the Commission, whilst not necessarily endorsing all its conclusions).

What might this mean for the people of Cambridge?  The government’s main aim is to get much greater input from local communities into the preparation of the Local Plan, local design guides and design ‘codes’ (which can be extremely detailed and prescriptive in their extreme form), whilst removing the opportunity to object and frustrate development at the individual planning application stage where delays most frequently occur. This might seem sensible in principle, but as most people only engage with the planning system when a planning application directly affects them, will this seriously impair local democracy and further undermine people’s confidence in the planning system? A confidence which is already at an all-time low.

A streamlined Local Plan process

To enable wider community involvement in Local Plan preparation, the Government proposes to simplify and streamline many of the current processes:

Firstly, there will be no more arguing about housing numbers – these will be imposed by the Government taking into account projected household growth and market signals around affordability and setting this against an assessment of local constraints, such as Green Belts and other landscape, environmental and conservation constraints. Pre-2011 this was done through Regional Spatial Strategies, but since their abolition planning authorities have had to haggle with objectors at Local Plan Inquiries as to how to strike the right balance between needs and constraints, relying on the ‘Duty to Co-operate’ with neighbouring councils to pick up any shortfall. This is all set to be scrapped and replaced by a top-down imposition, although there will inevitably be concerns about the transparency of this new approach. For instance, in Cambridge’s case will the Green Belt be taken as an absolute constraint in arriving at a housing requirement and therefore not open to challenge through the Local Plan Inquiry process? The White Paper hints that some form of strategic overview may be possible involving Combined Authorities, but in Cambridge’s case might this be handed to a strategic body overseeing growth in the ‘Oxford to Cambridge Arc’? The White Paper on the future of Local Government, expected in the autumn, may have also something to say about this (hello to a Greater Cambridge Unitary Authority?). In the absence of clarity on strategic planning, the possible mechanisms for co-ordinating infrastructure and growth at a sub-regional level remain opaque for the moment, a major weakness.

Secondly, the often complicated and detailed requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment and Sustainability Appraisal of the Local Plan will be replaced by a more simplified approach to assessing the environmental impacts of a Local Plan. Following the UK’s departure from the EU these changes will still have to comply with international treaties, yet many people will be concerned about the possible relaxation of standards. But given the impenetrable length and complexity of the documents that are currently pored over at Local Plan Inquiries, their replacement by a simpler and more accessible assessment that focusses on the key issues (which in Cambridge’s case are to do mainly with water, air quality and biodiversity) should help the average citizen to engage more in the debate. Viability and Deliverability Tests of the Plan are also to abolished, with the current test of ‘soundness’ of the Plan being replaced by a single statutory ‘Sustainable Development’ test.

Thirdly, Local Plans will no longer contain policies for development management. These will in future be set centrally by Government through the National Planning Policy Framework, giving little or no discretion for local authorities to set their own policies. This is no bad thing in some ways, given the level of duplication that exists between local and national policy documents, but it will remove the ability of planning authorities to innovate at the local level. However, some discretion to adapt national policies to local conditions must surely be allowed. In Cambridge’s case, it is likely that local policies would be better at resolving the delicate balance between regeneration and the historic environment.

The Government hopes that these three changes will help to shorten the Local Plan adoption process to 30 months compared with the seven years it takes on average at the moment, as well as shortening the length of the typical Local Plan document by two thirds. Plans would be reviewed and updated every five years. Local Plans in future are to be seen as more map-based, with fewer words, because their main task will be to focus on identifying land under three categories:

  • Growth Areas ‘suitable for substantial development’;
  • Renewal Areas ‘suitable for development’; or
  • Protected Areas.

The Plan would set detailed design standards, codes and frameworks for development in the first two categories, with existing policies of restraint continuing to apply in Protected Areas (including the Green Belt and in Conservation Areas). The Government also expects much greater use of digital technology to help citizen engagement, with support being proposed for the emerging ‘PropTech’ sector to help this along.

Growth Areas

Growth Areas will cover major developments such as new settlements, urban extensions and major brownfield developments, and the Local Plan allocation will automatically confer outline planning permission for development that is specified in the Plan, so that there is no subsequent argument about the principle of development. The Government expects master plans and design codes to be prepared by the local authority (or the site promoter) to provide the framework for detailed reserved matter applications, driven by ‘meaningful engagement’ with local communities. As at present, enough land will need to be allocated within the Plan, whether in Growth or Renewal areas, to accommodate the housing requirement laid down by the government.

Controversially, the government proposes abolishing Section 106 contributions that normally accompany outline permissions to secure the necessary infrastructure and affordable housing, replacing them with a single Infrastructure Levy that is calculated on a national formula as a set percentage of the value of the completed development, paid on occupation of the development - rather than up front or at agreed stages of completion as at present, but collected and spent locally by the local authority. This begs a huge number of questions (e.g. define ‘completion’ and ‘occupation’), but places responsibility on the local authority to deliver the infrastructure (and affordable housing), allowing them to borrow funds to pay for the infrastructure against the anticipated receipts of the Levy further down the line. A lot of risk will be taken on by the local authority and this raises particular challenges where two-tier authorities have responsibilities for different types of infrastructure (hello to Unitary Authorities again?). The White Paper expects the new system to support more on-site affordable housing than at present, but many uncertainties remain about how the Infrastructure Levy would operate in practice, particularly as a research paper published alongside the White Paper shows that both developers and local authorities actually support the continuing use of Section 106 agreements.

The Government again floats the possibility of Development Corporations as a mechanism for overseeing major growth developments, and this may have advantages in ring-fencing Infrastructure Levy receipts and protecting the planning and development functions needed to deliver major schemes from the likely ongoing restrictions on local authority budgets.

The Government expects Growth sites to be divided up and sold to a variety of housing providers, including land set aside specifically for self-build and co-housing groups. How this is to be enforced is unclear, but the enhanced role of local authorities in the provision of physical infrastructure may give them greater leverage than at present. The White Paper is silent on giving local authorities enhanced powers of compulsory purchase over sites allocated for Growth, which would be a more obvious way of ensuring that a greater diversity of housing providers is involved in delivery.

From the citizen’s perspective, the main challenge of the new Local Plan process will be how to engage in the quite detailed site-specific discussions that will be required on Growth sites, given that the Local Plan Inquiry will be the only chance for the public to test and scrutinise key design principles such as density, land uses, height, access and infrastructure provision. For instance, the type of consultation that the Cambridge planners are currently conducting on the draft North East Cambridge Area Action Plan (using helpful initiatives such as Zoom-based Question and Answer sessions) will in future have to be rolled into the Local Plan process, along with similar exercises on other Growth sites being allocated in the Plan. Even with enhanced resources and greater use of digital technology one has to ask whether this is feasible, let alone compliant with common law principles underpinning consultation, given that the Government will impose a strict timescale for Plan preparation. Is it realistic to expect individual members of the public or local community organisations to have the time and resources to engage in this way?

Renewal Areas

If the citizen’s engagement in Growth Areas will be challenging enough, further challenges will emerge in Renewal Areas. These will effectively be the existing built-up area, minus any Protected Areas, such as Conservation Areas, protected commons and open spaces, wildlife areas and areas of high flood risk. It could also exclude back gardens, but the government is ambivalent on this point. It would include small sites within or on the edge of villages not included in Growth or Protected Areas. Within Renewal Areas, Permission in Principle is granted for certain types of development that would be specified by locally determined design guides and codes set out in the Local Plan, with the aim of promoting the ‘gentle densification’ of residential areas. This is where the government expects the greatest community involvement, indeed design guides and codes will only be given weight in the planning process if the local authority can demonstrate that they reflect ‘locally popular’ views. They can go as far as producing ‘pattern books’ of local vernacular, where, if a development complies, a ‘fast track to beauty’ through the planning system will be guaranteed. 

This is all stirring stuff, backed up by the image on the front cover of the White Paper showing the Duchy of Cornwall’s heavily coded neo-vernacular housing development at Nansledan in Cornwall.  The question is, will it be remotely deliverable, and is it possible to establish a ‘local’ consensus about ‘beauty’ in architecture?  What, for instance, should happen if ‘locally popular’ views do not support densification, however ‘gentle’ it may be? Perhaps this approach could work through initiatives such as the excellent Village Design Guides that have been produced for some South Cambridgeshire villages – these would be given much more weight in the new system. But how should this approach be applied in more diverse urban areas?  A wider roll-out of Neighbourhood Plans (that sit under the Local Plan) may be one answer – these are still supported in the White Paper, but coverage of Neighbourhood Plans is currently minimal in urban areas, and there is very little support available to help.

The Government expects that developments that comply with locally adopted design guides or codes should be given swift approval, with limited scope for those directly affected to intervene (the White Paper asks for suggestions as to how neighbour views should be accommodated in the new system).  Where design guidance is not in place, developments should be judged against National Design Guidance.  There is also a potential let-out clause that allows developers to depart from a Local Plan in both Growth and Renewal Areas ‘if local circumstances have changed’ or an ‘unanticipated opportunity arose’.  In these situations a normal planning application would have to be made. The Government expects this to be an exception, however, and will reinforce the strength of the Plan-led approach.

The question of design skills and resources within local authorities becomes a key issue – budget cuts over the last ten years have seriously depleted specialist skills in planning departments.  The Government proposes a significant investment in skills and training for both planners and local Councillors (the latter of whose role in all this remains uncertain), and the ring-fencing of planning budgets, to be paid entirely from development fees, is proposed to provide some protection and stability. It proposes that all planning authorities appoint a Chief Officer responsible for design and place-making, a key recommendation of the Building Beautiful Commission.

A new national agency is also proposed to support local authorities in developing their design and place-making skills, which is ironic since the Coalition Government abolished just such a body (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) in 2011. The Government is also proposing to publish in the autumn a National Model Design Code on which local authorities can base their local codes, to follow on from the already-published National Design Guide.  An update of the Government’s Manual for Streets, which sets out standards for highway design and parking standards, is also promised for the autumn.

Many people will welcome the White Paper’s ambition to promote higher quality design in both Growth and Renewal areas, including enhanced community engagement in setting standards locally. But there must be huge questions about the capacity of local authorities and local communities to engage in the level of detail proposed, even with the additional resources and support promised. More profoundly, the removal of opportunities to object and comment when actual proposals are submitted must raise concerns about the erosion of local democracy.

Protected Areas

Finally, the third designation, Protected Areas, covers existing designations including Green Belt, Conservation Areas, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, Wildlife Areas, areas of high flood risk and areas of open countryside not designated as Growth Areas.  In Protected Areas there is effectively no change to existing development management practice, and planning applications are assessed against local and national policies as at present.

Climate Change

Design and sustainability are seen as being intertwined, and the new planning system is expected to effectively address climate change mitigation and adaptation and facilitate environmental improvements. All new homes built after 2025 will be required to produce at least 75% less CO2 emissions compared to current levels, and to be ‘zero carbon ready’ over time as the electricity grid decarbonises. The Environment Bill currently passing though parliament will require all developments to show a net gain in biodiversity.


The White Paper raises huge questions about the future shape of the planning system in England, and also addresses the challenges that will be involved in moving from the current to a new system. The latter point is significant for Greater Cambridge given that the City and South Cambridgeshire are already embarking on a new Joint Local Plan under the current system. Although we would hope that Cambridge’s Green Belt will remain largely intact, strategic pressures for housing and economic growth in the wider region will intensify in the absence of a more interventionist England-wide National Plan that would deliver the much-touted ‘levelling up’ of the regions. This in turn will require a continuing focus on Cambridge’s infrastructure, particularly in relation to transport and the provision of affordable housing. In this context, the problems associated with the absence of a strategic layer of planning in the region will become even more exposed. Although the White Paper proposes significant deregulation and further centralisation of many aspects of the planning system, some proposals, such as the Infrastructure Levy and the prospect of more accessible design-led Local Plans, may offer some hope for the future.

The consultation on the White Paper runs until 29 October 2020. CambridgePPF will be responding but I would encourage everyone to have their say, as these changes will influence the future development of greater Cambridge.

Click here to go to consultation.

Peter Studdert is an independent adviser on planning and design to the public sector. He is a former Director of Planning at Cambridge City Council.

17th August 2020