Is England’s planning system in the wrong direction?

By Victor Alarsa

From a developer perspective, sometimes the UK planning system can be quite intricate and vague. One of the reasons is due to its uncertainty at the initial stage.

Before starting a site negotiation with the landowner, the developer needs to calculate the residual land value. However, to appraise the prospective development, the developer needs to know precisely the maximum number of unities, max stories height, and all other building metrics. That is only possible if the developer officially consults the local planning authority (pre-application), which is going to charge for the information (ranging from a few dozens to thousands of pounds).

That is a dilemma: the developer needs to decide whether it is worth to pay a pre-application fee for each and every new deal to verify the residual land value.

That happens due to the nature of the UK planning system, which relies on the discretion of the local authority to decide or not to grant planning permission based on very loose and flexible urban policies stipulated nationally.

That may result not only in developers struggling to assess the value of a development upfront, but also make the land value quite volatile, depending greatly on the discretion of the local authority at the moment of the application.

For some urbanists, this could be seen as a flexible urban plan guided by the urban needs at that very moment, but from the market perspective, it brings to the table a lot of uncertainty on land value.

Because of that, in recent times, there seems to be a growing trend from UK’s planners to increase the certainty of the planning and development process, which means a more robust role for development plan documents and plan-making, as opposed to the ad-hoc determination of planning applications (currently in place). One of these new tools is Permitted Development Rights (PDR), which means that there are certain types of development, which will automatically be granted with planning permission by the government by following pre-stipulated building metrics. However, this policy works much more in favour of small developers or homeowners willing to extend their existing properties, as opposed to major developments.

Another solution to tackle this problem is what’s called the zoning system. This is a possible alternative to the current planning regime in England that could address these issues, providing increasing certainty from the outset – especially as many western countries around the world are already using zoning systems.

Zoning is a land-use planning system, which divides an area into different parts where some land-uses are permitted, while others are forbidden. There are two main tools, which define every zoning system: a zoning map and zoning regulations.

  • The zoning map shows a territory covered by the different land-use zones that regulate its development. The zones are identified at block or plot level.
  • Zoning regulates the set out of what is allowed and prohibited in the zones, identifying parameters and requirements in terms of units/acre, stories height, distance from other plots and other quantitative parameters of development.

Once the development complies with all the zoning rules it can usually proceed to plan submission, expecting to be successfully approved.

Providing greater certainty from the outset, the development potential is recognised for all plot parcels, without the requirement to apply for establishing land use parameters. This significantly reduces the scope for land value variation and, as a consequence, tends to fix the overall value of the land.

A move towards zoning would undoubtedly shift the local planning authority resource balance towards plan-making, reducing the ad-hoc control in determining planning applications, therefore it would reduce the necessity for consultation on individual schemes.

In light of the above, what is your opinion? Would zoning be beneficial for the UK urban system?

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