8 July 2020: Seizing the chance for zonal planning reform is the final piece in the chancellor’s jigsaw

The chancellor today reiterated a pledge to reform the planning system in England with a Planning Policy Paper later this month, followed by new planning legislation in ‘summer 2020’. While we await further detail, here are some thoughts on the problems of the current planning system and how they could be solved to build more affordable homes, create more jobs and house more people in housing need.

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As a housing association development director, planning delays are a frustrating part of my everyday life. In common with most other housing providers, a core part of our purpose at Stonewater is to build more good-quality, affordable homes for people who need them most. Indeed, we have recently confirmed we will more than double the number of homes we build each year to at least 1,500 from March 2022. Yet too often the current planning system throws spanner after spanner into the works and people have to wait much longer than they should for much-needed affordable homes.

How much longer is much longer? In Stonewater’s experience on average schemes take double the length of time the government says they should to receive a planning decision. The government target is 13 weeks for all applications for developments with 10 homes or more. At present our projects of this size take around six months. In one instance for a scheme in Worcestershire of 48 homes the delay was more than two years.

Planning delays may be commonplace, but they don’t need to be. That 48-home scheme may be an outlier, but it is by no means unique to Stonewater. Multiply that across the hundreds of developing housing associations across the country and you begin to see the scale of the problem. But also the scale of the opportunity.

The latest government statistics on planning permissions for England show an improving picture over recent years. The country has moved from just 47% of major schemes (more than 10 homes) in 2012/13 being approved within 13 weeks or an agreed time, to 86% in 2018/19. While the reduction in delays is a good thing, there is room to do much better for our communities – and particularly those households in housing need, living in overcrowded or temporary accommodation while they wait months and sometimes years for an affordable home to become available.

The ‘build, build, build’ speech last week by the prime minister has been followed today by confirmation by the chancellor of significant public investment housing. The £3bn for green retrofitting and the £50m social housing pilot presents an incredible opportunity to improve energy-efficiency and tackle fuel poverty in our existing homes.

The £12bn, five-year Affordable Homes Programme is very welcome and will help the construction of 180,000 affordable homes across England. The long-term nature of this funding allows us to plan longer-term and invest in more strategic land.

At the heart of our plans on new homes is the partnership with Guinness and Homes England as its largest Strategic Partner, with £224m funding for 4,500 additional high-quality, affordable homes across the country by 2022. We have taken steps to maintain our strong finances despite the pandemic, and we have recently raised new funds ensuring we are able to make good on our commitments.

From our perspective, the missing piece in the house building jigsaw is a streamlined planning process. The government has promised a Planning Policy Paper later in July, so what should this look like?

For Stonewater, what we feel would help turbo-charge house building even more is introducing a zonal planning system, to allow more land to be allocated for housing – especially in high-demand areas. We hope that this forms a core part of the new policy paper, as this could lead to hundreds of thousands more homes and be truly transformational.

A move to a zonal planning system, in the context of an agreed Local Plan and identified housing need, would present a number of benefits. The most important of these would be speed. As mentioned earlier, in most instances for Stonewater this would see the length of time taken to grant planning permission cut in half to 13 weeks.

Importantly, a zonal planning system would mean much earlier and more effective public engagement in the planning process. Local people and politicians would be able to set the rules up front and all developers would have to abide by these. Decisions could then be made much more quickly by planning professionals.

The more we can focus and streamline the process, the less time people are waiting for affordable homes to be built, the less wasted cost on planning delays. We would also spend less time arguing about where homes are built and much more time and energy focused on what matters much more in the long term – the way new homes and their surroundings look and the design and creation of many more beautiful, sustainable new communities.

The country’s housing providers stand ready to support the government and spearhead a housing-led economic recovery from COVID-19. Seizing the chance to make transformative planning changes will ensure we can make the most of this opportunity.

Jonathan Layzell is Executive Director – Development at Stonewater