Written evidence submitted by Dr Chris Foye, Dr Gareth James, Ton Kenny, Prof Floral Samuel, Dr Bilge Serin & Dr James White [FPS 033]

The future of the planning system in England


This is an official response to the MHCLG Select Committee from the Place[1] strand within the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence[2] (CaCHE). The views contained in this report are not those of CaCHE as a whole. The response primarily draws upon the recently completed MHCLG-sponsored research project titled, “Delivering Design Value[3]” (White, Kenny, Samuel, Foye, James and Serin). The project traces the critical stages in the planning, design and development process for new housing, focusing on where ‘design value’[4] is typically delivered and highlighting the points at which the opportunities to deliver ‘design value’ are often missed.

The research looked at ten recently completed new-build housing developments spread over five case study local authorities. The research entailed site observations, document analysis, and over 50 semi-structured interviews with key personnel involved in the planning, design and delivery of the housing developments, including developers, architects, land promoters, local authority planning officers, local councillors and planning consultants. The case studies spanned the UK, and although our recommendations in this response are focused on England, we refer to examples from the devolved nations where relevant. Throughout our response, we have cited findings from the draft report in bold. The final report is due to be published in November but we are happy to share the draft version with the Select Committee (see contact details below).


The White Paper (WP) proposals are ambitious and understandably general in scope. Based on our research findings, we believe there are a series of key issues that need further consideration. We focus specifically on what the proposals are likely to mean for delivering design value, and therefore do not consider other impacts or outcomes, such as affordable housing contributions. We address the following questions: Q1, Q3, Q4, Q5.


Response to Questions

Q1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?


The main proposal in the White Paper is to move from a discretionary based planning system to a rules based system (a form of hybrid zoning). Under the proposals, the local authority will be assigned the sizeable task of writing up the local plan and design codes, and reconciling or trading off the different conceptions of design value. Based on our research, we can see considerable benefits with focusing local authority resources on design-based plan-making:

Our major concerns with the proposals are covered below in our responses to Questions 3, 4 and 5.


Q3. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?


In Chapter 7 of our draft report (attached), we present a range of recommendations for how the planning system could deliver design value. Here, we focus on three areas in particular which are pertinent to the White Paper proposals.

Design codes

As part of the shift towards a rules-based system, the WP proposes the introduction of ‘more binding’ local and national design codes, as well as site specific design requirements for each of the areas zoned for ‘renewal’ or ‘growth’. It is not clear how prescriptive these codes will be or how much weight they will have. Nonetheless, based on our research, we can offer some provisional reflections.

There are considerable arguments in favour of local and national design codes, which make us generally supportive of them. By setting design expectations in stone, they can provide developers with certainty, ensuring that they do not over-bid for development land (p.13 & p.81-82). By making certain design requirements non-negotiable, they can ensure that all new development meets a base-line standard, especially environmental standards which were often overlooked by our participants (p.64 & p.102). Robust design policy also allows local authorities to demonstrate the seriousness of their design governance aspirations and provides a critical ‘starting point’ for discussions with housebuilders (p.65). There are, however, a number of drawbacks with fixed design codes and rules based systems which need to be carefully considered:

Design leadership

Our research clearly indicates that design leadership can make a substantive difference (p.66). We therefore welcome the WP proposals to ensure every local authority has a chief officer for design and placemaking. If properly resourced, this could give local authority officers the confidence to make bolder decisions when exercising design discretion (p.102-103). At the same time, however, the appointment of a single officer should not be seen as a panacea. Local authorities need much more resources if they are to undertake proper design governance such as detailed design briefs, site-specific guidelines or post-occupancy evaluation (p.70).

Increasing competition in the housebuilding market

We believe that volume housebuilders (VHB’s) have too much hold on the market. Our interview respondents were of the view that smaller developers are more likely to produce well-designed homes and neighbourhoods than volume housebuilders, who, on the whole, tend to be singularly driven by profit and are most interested in identifying ‘the path of least resistance’ to gaining planning permission (p.72).

We therefore welcome the WP’s proposals to allow local planning authorities to identify sub-areas for self- and custom-build homes. In our report, we also make a number of other proposals for increasing competition in the housebuilding market: require a minimum number of small or medium-sized developers on larger multi-developer sites (p.101); allocate a wide range and mix of housing sites in local plans, at different sizes and scales, and in different locations, to achieve a balance of tenures and dwelling types (p. 102); provide local authorities with the resources to assemble and prepare sites for development so they can assume long-term stewardship over larger housing sites and accelerate build out rates in the public interest (p.101).

However, we are concerned that if the land ultimately zoned for ‘growth’ or ‘renewal’ is already owned (or ‘optioned’) by VHB’s or large-scale landowners then they will have ultimate control over who builds it out and over how long. Relatively democratic landownership therefore seems to us a prerequisite for competitive housebuilding. We therefore welcome the WP’s proposal to improve the data held on contractual arrangements used to control land but this should be done before the reforms are implemented rather than after.


Q4. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?


We accept the imperative to build more homes in the South and East of England. Past experience (e.g. Regional Spatial Strategies), however, suggests that for housebuilding targets to be politically sustainable, they need to have the support of the local community. We are concerned that by imposing extremely ambitious housing targets, central government will place local authorities in a double-bind - trapped between the irreconcilable demands of central government and local democracy (see Q5).

Of course, the premise of the WP is that these demands - local democracy and high housebuilding - are reconcilable provided that housing is well-designed and sufficient infrastructure is provided. However, this is to overlook the over drivers of NIMBYism, including concern over: affordability of new supply for local people; building over green spaces; noise and disruption associated with development; and, the potentially detrimental effect of new supply on local house prices[7].

One possible outcome of these reforms could be that the local housing targets are dropped because of their political unpopularity while the rules-based system remains but is used to constrain and displace supply[8].


Q5.  What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?


In our research, neither developers nor local authorities were very interested in involving the community. Many of the participants downplayed the role of community engagement in shaping design outcomes. There was no evidence that the local authorities or housebuilders were engaged in co-design or other forms of bottom-up engagement with communities (see p.86-87). There is a risk that, by removing one of the two stages of democratic oversight, these proposals will exacerbate this democratic deficit and exacerbate power inequalities:




October 2020


[1] Dr James White, MRTPI is Senior Lecturer in Urban Design at the University of Glasgow and a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.; Tom Kenny is Policy Officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute and a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence; Professor Flora Samuel, ARB is Professor Architecture in the Built Environment at the University of Reading and a Co-Investigator and ‘Place’ theme lead at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence; Dr Chris Foye is Knowledge Exchange Associate (South and South East England) at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.; Dr Gareth James is Knowledge Exchange Associate (Scotland) at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.; Dr Bilge Serin is a Research Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and is based at the University of Glasgow.

[2] The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) is a consortium of 14 institutions led by the University of Glasgow. The centre, which was established in August 2017, is a multidisciplinary partnership between academia, housing policy and practice. It produces evidence and new research focused on tackling the UK’s housing problems at a national, devolved, regional, and local level. CaCHE is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[3] https://housingevidence.ac.uk/our-work/research-projects/delivering-design-value.

[4] See “Design value at the neighbourhood scale: What does it mean and how do we measure it?” by Serin et al., (2018), https://housingevidence.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/R2018_04_01_Design-Value.pdf


[5] See “Can extended use of simplified planning instruments unlock development?”  by  Dr. Edward Shepherd (2020) https://www.tcpa.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=f53db0a4-b78d-4898-80e4-647080dad84b

[6] As happened with the reduction of affordable housing contributions during the 2008 financial crisis – see Crosby, N. (2019). Development viability assessment and the provision of affordable housing: a game of ‘pass the parcel’?. Town Planning Review, 90(4), 407-429.

[7] For example, see survey results from Shelter https://blog.shelter.org.uk/2015/01/the-strange-death-of-nimby-england/

[8] This is how zoning works in much of America e.g. Glaeser, E. L., & Gyourko, J. (2002). The impact of zoning on housing affordability (No. w8835). National Bureau of Economic Research.

[9] See Slade, D., Gunn, S. and Schoneboom, A. (2019). Serving the public interest? The reorganisation of UK planning services in an era of reluctant outsourcing. Royal Town Planning Institute, available online:


[10] Fung, A. (2006). Varieties of participation in complex governance. Public administration review, 66, 66-75.

[11] See the work of Desiree Fields e.g. https://www.publicbooks.org/uploading-housing-inequality-digitizing-housing-justice/