Two recent publications from the think tank Policy Exchange, published in January and June 2020, respectively, have illustrated a renewed intent by some to promote reform which undermines the ability of the planning system to deliver sustainable development.
The reports propose sweeping curtailments of the planning system’s authority to assess development proposals through the process of planning permission and instead promote an unfettered, market-driven, approach to how we build housing and infrastructure – making and re-shaping our places.
Amid reports that the UK Government is preparing to introduce new legislation which will ‘take an axe’ to planning, CIfA feels that it must respond to these radical proposals.
While it is not yet known what proposals Government may be considering, the proposals in these Policy Exchange reports must be countered, as many would necessitate sweeping away protections for heritage assets with archaeological interest.
The planning system is central to the management of change to the historic environment and provides the only effective protection for most heritage assets with archaeological interest. Much of the archaeological resource is undesignated and its nature, significance - and in some cases even its existence - can be unknown prior to the consideration of development proposals.
Since the 1970s, planning policy has been developed to define
- heritage assets (which are not dependent upon designation)
- significance and
- archaeological interest
and to provide decision-makers with a coherent framework for consideration of the impact of development upon the significance of heritage assets with archaeological interest.
The effective operation of this system would be fundamentally undermined by reforms that seek to redefine ‘development’ or remove the need for a specific application (for instance, by providing a general permission through the operation of permitted development rights).
Other radical ideas proposed in Policy Exchange’s Planning Anew include using design codes to set parameters within which a free-for-all approach to development could operate. This type of proposal disregards the purpose of good planning to ensure the right development happens in the right place, and is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.
The idea of an unregulated market-driven development system is a classic case of market failure, whereby the market has no incentive to reduce certain negative externalities like environmental harm, the lack of affordable housing, urban sprawl and erosion of local or historic character.
Without a system of permission, the mechanisms legally to impose archaeological safeguards are often lacking and heritage assets are vulnerable to loss and damage. For example, the key policy requirement in paragraph 189 of the NPPF:
‘Where a site on which development is proposed includes or has the potential to include heritage assets with archaeological interest, local planning authorities should require developers to submit an appropriate desk-based assessment and, where necessary, a field evaluation.’
This key requirement is unenforceable in the absence of an application for permission.
The idea that ‘liberalising’ (ie deregulating) planning overcomes key blockages has never been proven. Development is much more likely to be blocked by land prices, construction costs and land banking than by planning restrictions. Evidence for planning regulation preventing development is anecdotal at best, and unfounded ideological rhetoric at worst.
We should also treat with scepticism any argument that combating a COVID-19 recession requires emergency revision of the planning process at the expense of the environment and culture.
The effectiveness of the existing processes for archaeological protection is also well documented. In 2016 Historic England published a report on “25 years of archaeological discovery that have rewritten England’s story”. This report details the remarkable impact that developer-funded archaeological work has had on our understanding of the past.
CIfA’s Planning Case Studies project for Historic England provided evidence of how well the process of archaeological assessment and dissemination works when applied as intended by planning policy, and how heritage assets, development and the public interest can be needlessly damaged when it is shortcut.
A 2018 report from ALGAO ‘Archaeology in development’ showed that fewer than 0.01% of planning applications list archaeological concerns as a reason for refusal. Roughly 4% of planning applications have archaeological implications.
Planning is ultimately an exercise in weighing counter-balancing factors and it would be facile to suggest that greater weight can be given to one side of the equation without affecting the considerations on the other. The proposals in these documents suggest a direction of travel which is inexorably one way.
We must strive to make our planning system better, to develop new ideas that fit present needs. But the idea that planning can be made simple (by piling on complex exemptions, get-out clauses and loopholes) and still protect against market failure is deeply flawed. Not all the ideas in the Policy Exchange papers are bad, and many of the principles if pursued with honesty, deserve to be part of our approach to improving planning for everyone. But good planning must create better places. It must have good design, respect for inherited character, space for nature, manage harm to heritage assets, and many other things. It must be well planned.