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This comment from the Boris Johnson thread in the Skybar:

Dominic Cummings said that the Government will address 'long-term problems' in the wake of coronavirus crisis

He singled out the 'appalling' planning system in England and Wales which he said need overhauling because it 'makes things so hard to build'
...combined with this report from the Centre for Cities suggests there might be some moves in government to radically reform our planning system.

I don't know Cumming's specific critique but the Centre for Cities case is at least interesting, if to my reading not entirely convincing. They suggest that our current planning system (where every development needs specific planning permission) resembles post-war Soviet economic planning, in that it frustrates the mechanisms of market feedback to regulate land or property values, and create a situation of scarcity in which both supply and quality of new homes are kept low by risk averse developers. They advocate instead a Japanese style 'flexible zoning system', where any scheme that conforms to one of several predertermined uses and design criteria are granted automatic permisson. Under such a system, the democratic and consultative oversight would take place every time local planning policies were refreshed, but individuals schemes assessed as meeting established policies would bypass the planning application, S106 and public consultation process. They also propose zoning every area as one category denser than it currently is (detached to semis, semis to terrace, terraces to low risk flats) to encourage continued development across our cities and rolling housing stock renewal.

The implication for the built environment of our cities would be considerable. With risk removed there would presumably be a lot more development, particularly of difficult sites or within existing communities. This should lower the cost of housing and office accomodation in our cities and be good for local economies. However the danger would be that local authorities would practice a 'race to the bottom' in terms of design standards with local residents (who tend to become involved only when directly affected) having no recourse to object to sub-standard schemes. My other concern is that such a policy would destroy something which the UK planning system does well which is preserve character areas. This shouldn't be a problem in explicitly historically valued neighbourhoods where one presumes conservation area status would remain, but large areas of our cities are 'up-zoned' then they'll rather rapidly become patchworks of different development types.

Just wondering what people's view are.
 

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This gives an overview



Japanese homes are cheaper because they build more

Compared to skyrocketing housing costs in many Western cities, Japan has seen remarkable success in supplying affordable housing – even in cities with lots of economic growth. While average mean rents in London are upwards of £2,000, average rents in Tokyo are about £1,300 – even after Brexit-related depreciation of pound sterling.

This isn’t caused by social housing or danchi – less than 5 per cent of homes across Japan are socially rented, compared to about 17 per cent in England. And it’s not because Japan’s population is shrinking either – Tokyo’s population is still growing due to migrants from other parts of Japan and abroad.

Instead, it’s because the supply of housing in Japanese cities is responsive to local demand. While the UK saw about 194,000 houses start construction last year, Japan saw 942,000 housing starts last year.

Even though Japan demolishes and rebuilds lots of houses, the net increase in homes is still much larger than the UK – about 600,000 homes (Table 5) are added to Japan’s dwelling stock every year. Tokyo has added roughly 110,000 homes a year since 2003, compared to 20-40,000 a year in London over the same period.

These homes are often smaller than what we’re used to – the average property in Tokyo is 55 square metres, compared to 80 square metres in London. But this isn’t the full story. New supply in Tokyo responds to demand by building lots of smaller one-bed flats for singles, and young people can live independently without needing to share with housemates. This means that, even though average homes are smaller, the average Tokyoite probably has more housing floor-space per person today than the average Londoner because living with housemates is so uncommon.


Japan’s flexible zoning system is a different kind of planning

The planning framework that underpins this supply is a simple zoning system that allows by-right development, rather than one that relies on granting planning permission for each individual site. There are only 12 zones, defined according to the maximum nuisance level they allow, ranging from sleepy residential to polluting industrial uses. The key is that pretty much anything can be built, provided it does not exceed the zone’s nuisance level – so in areas zoned for high street usages it is possible to convert a hotel into housing and vice versa, but this is not possible in residential only zones.

This allows market supply to respond quickly as market demand changes and ensures development and density is driven by land values. If the demand to live in a city grows, older houses can be knocked down by landowners to provide more and better quality homes. In the case of apartment buildings, 80 per cent of the apartment owners need to agree to demolition and redevelopment. This is why Japan’s higher rate of demolition isn’t wasteful, as it enables an efficient supply of more and better quality housing.

Local taxes in Japan also encourage more homes

As a result, there is a clear difference in Japan between the value of land and the value of the property that sits on it. Like in other countries, the price of land in Japan reflects local economic strength and access to amenities and jobs. But unlike the UK, in Japan, the value of houses declines as they get older, because it so easy to supply new homes. Reflecting this, the property tax valuation of Japanese homes also declines over time, increasing the incentive for local government to build new homes to fund public services.

Japan shows how political choices cause Britain’s housing shortage

Of course, the planning system is not the only thing which is different. One factor is that the politics of housing are rather distinct – for instance, green belts around Tokyo in 1946 and 1956 failed because they were so unpopular with residents and local government.

But what Japan’s inexpensive homes and its alternative policy approach prove is that the housing shortage in British cities is not inevitable. Housing does not have to be expensive in prosperous cities. The housing shortage is something we have chosen to experience and can choose to change if we want to. If Tokyo managed to reform its green belt, twice, why can’t London or Cambridge?
 

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Truly radical reform will help but while it may be proposed, everyone will have a fit. The suburban Tories having vapours over loss of green fields and not being able to control the style of windows on your neighbours extension and the Urban left will scream about rapacious developer making profit and squeezing out the poor and all these towers are just for the rich and we can't demolish family homes for flats etc etc. Cameron was going to majorly reform the planning system but was quickly binned into the too difficult pile.

Look at the grief given to Permitted development rights in the UK that exist just for extensions to existing homes. Introduced 10 years ago as major reform. They are relatively modest and yet the amount and amount of bitching and moaning about them is constant, just because councils can't turn down modest schemes and neighbours can't stop their neighbour from doing anything . Yet in practice the existing permitted development rights benefit detached home dwellers the most because they are further from their neighbours and so are not so impinged by the 45 degree rule and they can extend up to 8m compared to 3m to 4m in terraces.

Plus the other aspect to Japans system is a local tax system that encourages councils to permit new development (taxes are higher on newer house than an old one, plus of course local councils keep their taxes unlike the UK). But tax reform in the UK will never happen. The Poll tax casts a long shadow and told every politician knows that big tax changes outrage the losers and are ignored by the winners. So at most widening the tax bands for more expensive properties is all that is suggested because that affects only the richest and so there is no political price to pay. True local taxation would see massive rises in tax for everyone. It might mean corresponding decrease in VAT or Income tax, but all anyone will care about is the massive new council tax bill.
 

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Generally speaking, I agree with the idea of moving from a 'discretionary' planning system (town planning as is, where each application is analysed individually against policies) to a 'prescriptive' planning system where development is permitted upfront provided it adheres to pre-defined rules. It's standard planning practice around the world and the UK is a bit of a weird outlier in not implementing a prescriptive planning system.

It gives more certainty to those doing the developing, where at the moment any application is a gamble and the level of scrutiny, objection and demands can vary wildly sometimes between adjacent neighbourhoods or streets. It could give more power to local authorities to set and enforce rules for development, to ensure density and good urban design where at the moment it can be a struggle getting even token gestures toward public realm and placemaking from housebuilders and developers. It could also be better for communities in providing certainty and an opportunity to influence urban form before applications come in, where at the moment community involvement mainly involves reactive objections to schemes after the application is in.

The devil is in the detail however, and if the main purpose and drive behind changing the system is just pushing the numbers game (i.e. getting more units built as easily as possible, and making things easy for developers) then we can expect a drop in overall quality. I'd need some assurance that this new system has substantial regard for urban design.

There is some talk about the use of design codes, but these need to be based on fairly objective measurements to be really effective, like building density, typology, setbacks, etc. Even materials and solid/void ratios could come into it if there's a certain character you're going for. But purely aesthetic ideas around 'style' need to be avoided.

I'm not going to immediately spit at it for being the Tories suggesting it, but the cynical part of me needs far more detail on how this would really work. If it's a simple bureaucracy-reduction machine then I can't support it, as someone who cares about quality urbanism above all else.
 

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I think this could actually be a good move overall depending on the detail and how it hooks up with democratic concerns like heritage, environmental and housing standards. I am not convinced that the current planning system with its focus on the individual application and local reponses to it promotes good architecture or is even democratic. I feel more often than not it ends up actually diminishing the artisitc side of development and is more focussed on giving a voice to existing home owners who are evangelised by housing as an investment rather than the big picture that impacts far more of the population and future generations, who actually knows and follows individual developments in planning?

Architecture comes from the conversation between the client and the architect and what is democracy and art? I like the democractic level in planning becoming clearer and more inclusive, bringing it to the area plan level, plans are known quantites where people can collectively consider wider issues that impact them and the needs of future generations and if updated every x years, will be visible to a larger population and would make it practical to push more people to get involved, large scale debates and workshops or even a public voting system etc. The "area" is more interesting for debate, I dont think we would be taking a large step forward if it remained at the dreaded parish level, London instead would benefit from a city wide approach rather than each borough trying to be their own mini-London, I fear that this proposal will not be that bold however.

I think we need to look at precedents of the past, certainly the post-war era is frowned upon as a low point, but I think that is more a case of lessons learnt about the negative sides of low density sprawl and destruction of historic building stock, surely we are wiser? Although the political push to build on greenfield is still there. When localism started to creep into planning from the post war backlash it started off on the wrong foot, it was based around niche societies with a specific focus, the actual planning system was still the Town and Country planning act, there was no actual replacement holistic plan after the great debacle of trying to move city populations into the countryside. Buildings in Japan which many would be worried about as an aesthetic arise from a different cultural attitude, although the comparision between personal space and "house" size is interesting, it is certainly an area where you could have your cake and eat it if the industry accepted lower profit margins, that most other industries would still think of as good. After all it basically all starts off from the very arbitary cost of land.
 

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I think it is a step in the right direction. Depending on how detailed it is, zoning could greatly facilitate individual redevelopment of outdated housing stock on very large plots (e.g. bungalows), which could create a smaller house developer industry. The current system is an oligopoly precisely because planning risk is too high for small developers to exist.

Ultimately the most natural way to add new units would be to densify existing suburbs, particularly in London, where density falls off a cliff compared to other European cities. If we would manage a sustainable transition from converted townhouses towards high quality mansion blocks that would be a very attractive way of adding a great deal of units in London, without the boom to bust approach of inserting very tall towers in random suburbia.

I agree NIMBYs would greatly disapprove, but ultimately we need to decide what sort of society we wish to be. One thing which would help is the imposition of building standards (e.g. minimum room size, access to storage, balconies mandated) in order to ensure replacements are of a high quality.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
I like the democractic level in planning becoming clearer and more inclusive, bringing it to the area plan level, plans are known quantites where people can collectively consider wider issues that impact them and the needs of future generations and if updated every x years, will be visible to a larger population and would make it practical to push more people to get involved, large scale debates and workshops or even a public voting system etc. The "area" is more interesting for debate, I dont think we would be taking a large step forward if it remained at the dreaded parish level, London instead would benefit from a city wide approach rather than each borough trying to be their own mini-London, I fear that this proposal will not be that bold however.
The attraction to me is that it makes the plan more important, and consequently should force it up the local political agenda. My concern is that the system implemented would be one that removed the power of the public/democratic institutions over this document in lieu of purely economic criteria and central diktat. I suppose the better compromise would be that national policy/price feedback sets the objectives of each plan, and that local people and agencies are responsible for 'zoning' in such a way that those problems can be solved. How exactly that mechanism would work I'm not sure.

Area is an interesting question, because rarely does local authority represent any kind of functional economic, social or environmental community. In rural areas I could see the argument that neighbourhood/parish level planning being a worthwhile endeavor, but in large conurbations even local authority level is as you say too limited in scope. However I'm not sure that a single zoning plan for all of London would be deliverable with the number of stakeholders involved? Perhaps in urban areas plans need to be delivered by 'coalitions' of authorities identified at the strategic level. For example in Greater Manchester there's a reasonable argument that Manchester, Salford and Trafford should plan jointly, but I'm not sure including Bury or Stockport in that would be necessary. However there are major strategic plans on the boundaries of Bury, Oldham and Rochdale that suggests a common approach for those boroughs would be sensible.
 

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Interesting blog on this subject on the Town and Country Planning Association site.

The author is against changing to a zonal planning system (understandably, town planning is at this point a longstanding professional discipline and those who know it best won't be too keen on a wholly new discipline) while I am still generally in favour, but raises quite a few valid points and concerns I can only agree with, mainly:

Code or ordinance-based systems have a chequered international history. In the USA zonal ordinances were used openly to secure racial segregation in many cities. Even after such city ordinances were ruled unconstitutional, codes were manipulated to exclude lower value homes and therefore the lower income, often black, populations who relied upon them. The point is that there is nothing inherently good or bad about zonal planning, it all depends on the precise detail of its implementation.
 

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I think that the article's on Japan's housing situation are a little misguided. There's a serious problem in Japan with housing affordability and furthermore the statistical comparisons used don't account for the sheer size of Tokyo's population (three times larger than London) and the fact that Japanese culture values short term houses that are demolished after one generation (which I believe is based on the idea that there are so many natural disasters that could bring down your home so the homes are often build to be demolished within a short lifespan).
 

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The reinstated Hordern station, between Newcastle and Middlesborough was opened to passenger services on the 29th June. Soham station which i posted about previously has been approved on the 26th June and could open in Spring 22.
 
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