Moving towards zoning in the UK?
By Emma Dring
In Planning for the Future (March 2020) the Government promised “further support for local areas to simplify the process of granting planning permission … through zoning tools, such as Local Development Orders” (‘LDOs’). What are the perceived benefits of zoning? What opportunities might arise from increased use of LDOs?
What is zoning, and what are its benefits?
Zoning is a land use planning technique in which an area (a city or district) is divided into ‘zones’ on a detailed plan. Technical rules prescribe the uses permitted in each zone, and usually address all matters of detail (e.g. mass, height, set-back, parking, landscaping requirements). As a result, the rules are complex and can run to hundreds or thousands of pages.
Although complex, zoning schemes tend to be highly predictable. Because they are rule-based, there is limited scope for the exercise of planning judgement and therefore for disagreement. If the rules are met, a permit is issued.
In the UK, the situation is often the opposite. Decisions are guided by broad and sometimes conflicting policy statements, so a considerable amount of planning judgement is needed. The process can take a long time, outcomes can be unpredictable, and there is always the possibility of obtaining an alternative planning judgement by appealing.
These (and other) perceived deficiencies of the UK system were discussed in the Policy Exchange paper Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century (January 2020). The paper made the radical suggestion that all land in the UK should be zoned either as ‘development land’ or ‘non-development land’, with no restrictions on permitted uses on private plots of land, and development left to the market. Local plans would be turned into zoning rules, to be applied by administrators and involving no judgment of planning merits.
There is little chance of such a system being introduced in the UK (or at least, those of us who make our livings from the planning system sincerely hope not!). However, the main author of the Policy Exchange paper is now the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Housing and Planning, so the underlying thinking may influence the direction of government policy and should be taken seriously.
Towards a more ‘zoned’ approach?
The Government has not (yet) indicated any intention of fundamentally transforming the UK planning system, although the possibility is left open in Planning for the Future with talk of “creative solutions to establish a planning system that works for the next century” and “a long-term programme of reform”.
For the time being, the proposals are limited to encouraging greater use of “zoning tools, such as Local Development Orders” to help “speed up the planning system”. LDOs are not true zoning tools, because they do not preclude development outside their scope being approved. They grant permission for specified development/classes of development on land within a local authority area, usually subject to conditions. The NPPF already encourages their use (paragraphs 51 and 68), but there is undoubtedly scope to increase awareness and take-up. As of 2019, only 54 planning authorities in England (out of 360+) had made an LDO. It is worth reconsidering the opportunities that they might offer.
LDOs and the opportunities they offer
LDOs are a flexible tool. There are certain restrictions (for example, they cannot permit development which would affect a listed building, or Schedule 1 EIA development), and EIA and/or Appropriate Assessment may be needed before they can be adopted. But they can be used at a variety of scales – from a single building to the whole of a local authority area – to achieve many different planning objectives. Initially they tended to be used to support employment sites, particularly in Enterprise Zones where relaxed planning controls were an important part of the offer. However, they have a much wider range of potential applications.
Place-shaping and supporting delivery of strategic development
LDOs can be used proactively alongside site allocations, to shape the final form of development on strategic sites, provide certainty about the infrastructure requirements, and potentially speed up delivery. Although they do not prevent applications for different forms of development, the avoidance of the application fee and the reduced risk would be significant incentives for developers to utilise the LDO.
- Cherwell DC adopted an LDO (subsequently revised twice) to support the delivery of Graven Hill, allocated in the local plan for approximately 2,100 homes. The Council used the LDO to grant reserved maters approval (pursuant to an outline planning permission for development including 1,900 homes) for custom and self-build houses – creating the UK’s largest custom and self-build community. RMA is granted subject to compliance with a masterplan and design code, among other conditions.
Bringing forward development on ‘problematic’ sites/supporting regeneration
LDOs may be used to increase the prospect of development on sites which have faced delivery problems in the past, or which are perceived as difficult to develop for site-specific reasons.
- North East Lincolnshire Council successfully used NDOs to support residential-led mixed use developments at a former bingo hall site and a former factory site, which had each been vacant for at least 10 years with unimplemented planning permissions.
In this scenario, LDOs may help to remove risk and simplify the process by setting out the parameters of a viable and acceptable scheme. The process of consulting on and bringing forward an LDO can also help to publicise opportunities and generate interest. Close collaboration with site owners and developers is likely to increase chances of success.
Extension of PD rights/reducing caseload
By permitting minor works or specified non-contentious development, LDOs can be used to ensure consistency of approach and increased certainty for applicants. They reduce burdens for applicants (no planning application is needed), and for officers, who can free up time to spend on larger developments.
- Central Bedfordshire Council: borough wide LDO covering householder extensions, subject to compliance with the Council’s design guide and a range of standard conditions.
- Kettering BC: LDO to permit pavement tables and chairs in the town centre, where specified criteria are met.
LDOs are an under-utilised tool, and greater awareness is needed. They can be used to address a wide range of planning issues. Although they are not strictly ‘zoning tools’ (and a wholesale move towards a zoned planning system may not be desirable) LDOs bring many of the perceived benefits of zoning systems: greater certainty, less scope for disputes, a speedier outcome for applicants. The Government’s encouragement to increase their use is to be welcomed.