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Zoning Reform – English Style

August 16, 2020 by admin
Housing, Policy/Legislative

Housing affordability and calls for land use regulation are issues not only all across America, but also across the “pond” in the UK.  As far back as 2014, The Economist noted in a story on Britain’s planning laws that the shortage of housing was a national crisis.  “In the past year (2013),” the magazine wrote, “wages have risen by 1%; property prices are up by 8.4%”

The cause?  Much as it has been here, the story indicates that “though some 221,000 additional households are formed in England annually, just 108,000 homes were built in the year… .”  And the cause for this disparity?  While acknowledging a variety of factors, much of the blame is laid at the feet of local councils’ housing project review practices –

“It is almost impossible to construct any new building anywhere without permission from the local council. In the places where people most want to live—suburbs at the edge of big cities—councils tend not to give it.”

In subsequent years, there have been numerous calls in Britain for reform of the land use planning process.  Last week, the conservative government of Boris Johnson released a white paper titled Planning for the Future, which lays out a proposal for such reform.  The proposal again blames the local planning process for the housing shortfall.  In announcing the paper, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said:

“These once in a generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country. We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.”

The Tories’ white paper proposes to reform England’s land use system by:

  • A wholesale reform of all zoning in England, creating three categories: Growth, Renewal & Protected.
  • Growth zone allows permission to build automatically, so long as basic environmental measures are met. Land zoned Renewal offers conditional approval subject to more stringent checks and land zoned Protection (mainly green belt, parks and heritage) does not allow any development.
  • The Local Planning process which takes up-to 7 years will be reduced to 30 months and much of the system will be digitized.
  • A simplified system of calculating what developers contribute to affordable housing and other provisions will be introduced, called an Infrastructure Levy.

Reaction to the paper has been mixed at best.  In a report on the plan announcement, the BBC noted:

BBC Reality Check said there had been criticism in recent years of the amount of time it takes to get planning permission.

But it also noted that many developers secure planning permission and then do not immediately build.

In 2017-18, 382,997 applications were granted, which would be more than enough to meet the government target of 300,000 new homes a year.”

 

Stressing that the housing affordability problem may not be primarily a local government issue as claimed, the BBC story goes on to note:

James Jamieson, the chair of the Local Government Association, said the idea that planning was a barrier to house building was “a myth”.

“Nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils, while more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade have not yet been built,” he said.

 

The Guardian newspaper, in a story on the white paper, said of the Tory party:

“It is doing this in the name of cutting red tape and speeding up the planning process, yet there is no sign that the planning system is standing in the way of delivering homes. Records compiled by the Local Government Association show that around 90% of planning applications are approved, while there are more than a million homes with planning permission that have not yet been built.

The rule book is also being shredded in the name of “beauty”, with the idea that proposals will be subject to design codes and developers encouraged to follow pattern books, citing the precedents of Bath, Belgravia and Bournville. There is the added promise of “a fast-track system for beautiful buildings” but no hint as to who the arbiter of beauty may be. Who comes up with these codes, who draws the patterns, and who judges if a proposal meets the criteria remains to be seen.

What is more certain is that the reforms will effectively cut democratic input into the planning process by half. At present, there are two opportunities for accountability and oversight, one at the creation of a local plan and one at the final consent of a planning application. The reforms propose to move all democratic accountability to the plan-making stage, set to be drawn up for each area within 30 months. From now on, if you want to object to a new development, you will have to have been there to feed into the discussion several years before it was even proposed.”

It will be interesting to watch how England’s “zoning reform” plays out over the next few months.

Meanwhile, back home in New England, in addition to recent zoning reform efforts in Connecticut and Vermont, Massachusetts has an extensively reworked proposal pending before its state legislature.  The bill is called the Housing Choice initiative, and it has persisted through several iterations after coming up short in 2018 and 2019. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has supported it from the outset. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning organization for the larger Boston area has also voiced support for Housing Choice as well as other attempts at statewide planning and zoning reform in Massachusetts.

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the bill as part of larger legislative packages; now a conference committee just needs to hash out the final legislation. It falls well short of what housing advocates once wished for, and indeed makes only one change. But it’s a big one: The bill would make it easier for towns and cities to relax their zoning restrictions by requiring only a simple majority in their local governing bodies instead of a two-thirds supermajority.”

While such a change may seem rather minor, keep in mind that many communities in Massachusetts can change their ordinances through town meeting processes where all citizens who show up get a vote.

The snowball rolling down the hill just keeps on getting bigger.

 

Wilf Sommerkorn

Co-Chair, APA Utah Legislative Committee