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In a Bid to Speed Development, Britain Gives Zoning a Try

The U.K. is poised to pass a radical overhaul of its planning system. Critics say it would only exacerbate housing inequality. 

The U.K. government unveiled plans this month for the most radical overhaul of the country’s planning system since the 1940s. 

To the government, the proposals are a bid to speed up home building and to power the post-pandemic economy. To the plan’s critics, it is a no-strings gift to developers that dilutes planning standards and risks creating the “slums of the future”.

The crux of the plan, published in a white paper outlining proposals for future legislation, is the adoption of a tool that is ubiquitous in the U.S. but currently plays no part in British planning regimes: zoning. This is a major shift. Under the current system, introduced in 1947, the U.K. does not practice zoning. There is no automatic right in Britain to develop any unbuilt land, or to permit changes of use on already developed sites. Planning decisions are discretionary, taken on a case-by-case basis, and granted almost exclusively by local authorities. Under zoning schemes like the new proposal, a city is instead divided up into “zones” that allow different types of development. If a new proposal meets those criteria, it can go forward without getting individual permission.

These proposals would include new construction, as well as extensions and changes to existing buildings. Rules surrounding affordable housing would be changed, while demolitions of unused non-residential buildings would also require no approval.

The point of the changes, the government says, is to loosen up a sclerotic planning system that is beset with delays, allowing British towns and cities a chance to deliver housing more quickly. “These changes will help transform boarded-up, unused buildings safely into high-quality homes at the heart of their communities,” said U.K. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick at a press conference. “It will mean that families can add up to two stories to their home, providing much-needed additional space for children or elderly relatives as their household grows.”

But adding zoning doesn’t necessarily mean easing planning requirements,says Michael Edwards, honorary professor at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning. “The purpose is to remove the uncertainty, the political risk in proposing development,” he told CityLab by phone. “In most other parts of Europe that have a zoning system, that isn’t entirely how it works. Local politicians and campaign groups have flexed their muscles over the years and found a lot of ways to influence decisions and create quite demanding framework which requires the negotiation of a lot of detail.” The idea that simply loosening planning procedures will solve problems is also flawed, he says. “This plan is wrong from top to bottom.”

The U.K.’s scheme would create three categories for development that apply across the entire country: “growth,” “renewal” and “protection.” Protected areas would face the same oversight as they do now, while those marked for growth would be subject to the least control, with proposals approved automatically if they fit local guidelines. While the plan, produced by the national government, pushes hard for more development land, it would ultimately be up to local authorities to decide how particular areas are categorized. Among the areas the white paper suggests should be classified for growth are sites for proposed new towns, “urban extension sites” — that is, greenfield sites adjacent to existing built-up areas — and ex-industrial areas, as well as districts near universities “where there may be opportunities to create a cluster of growth-focused businesses.”

In some areas, the planning liberalization is going even further, with many demolitions and extensions no longer requiring any approval. Adding two floors to homes built after World War II would be allowed without securing permission, as would extensions above shops and offices. Owners of office or retail buildings that have been vacant for six months or more will be allowed to tear them down to free up space for development without going through the planning process. 

Rules around affordable housing and infrastructure would alsochange. Current laws require developers to provide a minimum percentage of affordable units for each development, and to pay a tax intended to fund infrastructure development before construction starts. Under the new proposals, developers will no longer be expected to construct affordable units, but to pay a new tax to local authorities to fund such housing. Paid after construction, as a percentage of the development’s final value, this new tax would also cover the cost of providing infrastructure to the site. The government argues that this new tax’s ultimate value to local authorities could well be greater than what developers pay currently. It couldalso prevent developers from abusing the system by promising a large number of affordable units and then finding ways to whittle this number down during construction. The change would nonetheless require boroughs to borrow money to install infrastructure, and place the onus for constructing affordable housing on them — either by building it themselves using the tax income or by buying a portion of the developer’s completed units. 

The plan faces strong criticism from architects, local authorities and anti-homelessness advocates. “The  government behaves as though they believe that the housing problems are entirely down to inadequate supply of housing — due to the planning system — but the problems are really on the demand side,” says Edwards, the planning professor. The real cause of the shortage of affordable housing, says Edwards, is not developers prevented from building, but galloping inequality that skews the housing market by encouraging the wealthy to consume more and more property. These market forces incentivize developers to build as much high-end housing as possible. “This is reinforced by wealthier people using housing as a savings and investment device, then hugely amplified by the floods of credit that have entered the system. The resulting price escalations then exclude people from buying. These real problems are things that this government doesn’t want to touch.”

Some statistics do indeed challenge the idea that planning blockages are inhibiting supply. A chief criticism is that developer strategies to hold onto land without developing it play a far greater role in Britain’s under-delivery of new homes than planning permission hold-ups. More than one million homes granted planning permission since 2009 and 2010 remain unbuilt, a phenomenon that the government has acknowledged is partly down to developers “hoarding land.” And while the government claims that the new levy system could actually increase revenue for local authorities overall, critics like the anti-homelessness charity Shelter say that shifting the onus for developing affordable housing to local authorities could result in an even worse provision of housing for low-income people than the U.K. manages currently. The white paper does not state what, if any, proportion of the new tax earned by local authorities would actually have to be spent on providing affordable housing.

Allowing demolition of any building that has been empty in the medium term could also lead to the degradation of currently viable buildings, by providing owners with an incentive to leave them untenanted and in poor condition to free up their sites for development that requires no approval. And with the standard process of planning applications removed, communities would no longer have the same opportunities as they do currently to provide input, and voice objections to development proposals.

Britain has already caught a glimpse of what the new proposals’ effects might be. Since 2013, the U.K. has allowed converting offices to homes without approval. This innovation may have sped up delivery, with 60,000 extra new homes developed from converted offices between 2015 and 2019. It may also have suppressed standards. Free of planning constraints, an estimated 70% of this new cohort of homes were one-bedroom apartments or studios. Some were as small as 16 square meters (172 square feet) and on occasion didn’t even have windows. Often for low-income residents with few other options, some of these new units have become known for their poor quality. One case in Harlow, Essex, led local authorities to accuse developers of “human warehousing.” Critics of the new plan fear that more slum-type housing could be on the way if the new rules are introduced.

 While it is not yet clear exactly how such zoning would be administered, Tim Willis, partner and planning expert at U.K. law firm Shoosmiths LLP has speculated that, under national guidance, local governments would create pattern books of acceptable designs and a model design code for developers to follow. This was recommended in a government report last year that advocated a return to traditional vernacular styles, at least for the outermost shell of new buildings. Planning procedures would not be dispensed with entirely, but applications that adhere to these standards will likely be waved through, with objections in principle to building on greenfield sites, or from local residents, no longer accepted as grounds for rejection. Only proposals that rejected preordained local guidelines would require additional approvals. 

With an outright majority, the Tory national government is in a good position to see their proposals approved by Parliament. But widespread criticism, as well as the fact that relaxations in planning laws may go down badly in Conservative-voting heartlands, may nonetheless see the proposals face some pretty strong resistance along the road, which could affect the shape that a bill to Parliament would take.