We need a bold move to a flexible zoning system

By Anthony Breach | 30 June 2020

While some will have enjoyed spending more time at home these last three months, for many people – particularly the millions of families or flat sharers living in cramped accommodation in expensive cities – it’s been a hellish ordeal.

For many, lockdown has been made much harder by not having sufficient living space in which to both work and live. It’s not just London - people in Slough, Luton and Coventry have the least living space per person in the country.

Clearly then, as all of us are likely to be spending more time at home for the foreseeable future, it has never been more important that we find a way to fix the housing crisis and deliver enough homes for people to live independently. The Government is reportedly serious about finding a solution, with Dominic Cummings keen to reform our existing planning rules which date from the 1940s.

Bold thinking is certainly needed. I appreciate that what I am about to say will be controversial with many readers – particularly the planners among you – but our discretionary planning system is to blame for the situation we are in. It is designed to stem development, not permit it. It rations off land and prevents the building of homes where they are most needed – cities and large towns in the Greater South East.

As a result, while housing equity for (mostly older) homeowners in parts of southern England has increased by huge amounts in the past decade, many others suffer in inadequate accommodation.

Our latest report draws concerning parallels between our own planning system and the planned economies for the former Eastern Bloc, where production was tightly controlled by the rationing of permits and shortages of necessities were commonplace.

Fixing this problem requires significant reform. The Government should scrap the discretionary nature of our planning system and adopt the more flexible zoning model used in other countries such as Japan – which despite being a relatively expensive place, does not have a housing crisis.

Under a flexible zoning system, the drafting of a local plan would become even more important. It would give the public the opportunity to have a greater say on the types of development they want to see in their area – from the density to the architecture.

But then, importantly, once this is agreed any proposed development that meets the criteria of the plan would be automatically approved. This would end the bizarre situation that we currently see whereby a proposed development could comply entirely with a signed off local plan but still be refused planning permission. This feature of the planning system has become the NIMBY’s strongest weapon.

Admittedly, zoning codes are not perfect. Those used in many US cities are overly complicated and inflexible, which is why places such as San Francisco and New York still have housing crises. The ideal zoning code should have a small number of necessary zones, which each allow a variety of uses ranging from low density residential right up to industrial. Heavy industries could be segregated into special zones away from homes, but elsewhere small shops and offices could mix in residential areas

All too often we blame people for the deficiencies of the planning system – selfish NIMBYs, greedy developers, bureaucratic planners. But it’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the system. And we have reached the point where only a total rewrite of our planning rules will fix the crisis we find ourselves in.

With an 80-strong majority, rising unemployment and a lot of election promises to keep, now is the perfect time for the Government to make the reforms needed to ramp up the number of new homes being built. But a failure to do this will further increase our economic, generational and social divides and make the UK an even more unequal place.

Anthony Breach is an Analyst at Centre for Cities. You can read his new report Planning for the Future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis’ here.

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