Housing secretary’s comments come after weekend reports he is working on radical reform package with Dominic Cummings

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has said it is time to re-think the planning system “from first principles” following reports at the weekend that the government is considering the introduction of US-style zonal planning in the UK.

Housing minister Robert Jenrick

Source: Stuart Graham / Creative Commons

Housing minister Robert Jenrick

Jenrick, commenting on the release of a collection of essays on the planning system by right wing think tank Policy Exchange, said: “The time has come to speed up and simplify this country’s overly bureaucratic planning process”, adding that the government was “thinking boldly and creatively about the planning system to make it fit for the future.”

His comments come after the Sunday Times reported at the weekend that Jenrick has been working with the prime minister’s controversial chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, on a package of radical planning reforms.

Jenrick said: “I want everyone, no matter where in the country they live, to have access to affordable, safe, and high-quality housing, and to live in communities with a real sense of place. It’s time to re-think planning from first principles.”

The changes being discussed are reported to include a move to zonal planning – a system used in some other countries including the US whereby certain uses get automatic right to planning permission in certain areas – alongside a radical deregulation of use classes designed to allow high streets and town centres to adapt to changing uses.

In addition, it was reported that there will be a new fast-track planning system for developers of high quality, well-designed buildings. The changes are seen as part of an economic stimulus package designed to reboot the economy in the wake of the covid-19 crisis.

While Jenrick today insisted that “high quality design and sensitivity to the local vernacular must be at the very heart of the process,” his comments are likely to alarm those worried about the impact on development quality of further deregulation of the planning process.  

Jenrick has previously called for a “first principles” reform of the planning system, when in March he published a policy paper detailing proposed reforms in advance of a forthcoming white paper, still not published. However, the proposals at that time were not widely seen as radical

Green belt land

The suggestion from weekend press reports is of reforms that are closer to proposals aired by Policy Exchange in a January paper authored by Jack Airey, who was shortly after appointed as Boris Johnson’s housing advisor in Number 10 Downing Street.

The essays published today by Policy Exchange include contributions from a series of experts seen as influential in the government, including economist Bridget Rosewell, who sits on the National Infrastructure Commission and recently chaired the Independent Review into Planning Appeal Inquiries.

The Sunday Times said that she was part of a panel of experts convened at the weekend to discuss the forthcoming proposals, alongside property developer Sir Stuart Lipton. In her Policy Exchange essay Rosewell proposes abandoning the current “plan-led” planning system, which she says acts as a “straightjacket” on development.

She says: “We must abolish the plan as a shibboleth, a straitjacket and an industry. […] Abolishing the current planning edifice does not remove the need for frameworks for permissions. Tensions still exist and must be resolved.”

While she says she doesn’t propose moving to a “free-for-all”, with major strategic priorities planned for, nevertheless, “in detail, local interests and local people can fight it out.”

Jenrick’s March policy paper laid out plans for a modest trial of zonal planning alongside a further expansion of permitted development rights, including over use classes. But even when this was announced, Royal Town Planning Institute chief executive Victoria Hills described it as likely to encourage a piecemeal, short-term approach which “risk poorly designed and inappropriately located housing and will make it more difficult for communities to have a say on development.”

Then Labour housing minister John Healey said the paper was a “threat to give big developers a freer hand to do what they want, ignoring quality, affordability and sustainability.”