Big thinking Budget can kick start the Arc and drag a petrified planning system into the 21st Century

10.3.20 3 MINUTE READ


Slow, overly-politicised and outdated are four words that neatly sum-up the UK’s petrified planning system. Mike Derbyshire highlights some ways the UK planning system can change in the future.

Planning policy has remained relatively unchanged since Clement Attlee’s Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 when, just as it is today, all planning was subject to permission by local councils and every area of the country was to be planned locally. But while the planning system has been preserved in amber, the UK has changed beyond recognition since 1947. 

Tomorrow’s Budget has the potential to be the moment when the UK’s planning system changes forever. 

Stuck in the 20th Century 

Instead of coal mining and manufacturing, we are now a country defined by our services - whether professional or financial. And we are one of the world’s leading fintech hubs.

Investment in the UK’s technology sector grew at a faster pace than in the U.S. and China last year, according to Tech Nation and Dealroom, with venture capital funding for British start-ups growing by 44% to $13.2bn. 

However, a lack of pragmatism has meant planning is still stuck in the 20th century, stalling the delivery of housing and workspace, and hampering business investment.

Bidwells’ research has found that in areas such as Cambridge, office and lab rents have jumped by 12% in the last year alone, while according to Zoopla, house prices have risen by as much as 77% since 2009. Skyrocketing prices are threatening to price out both university spin-outs and talent.

Our proposed delivery body would see the Arc’s 31 local authorities sit alongside developers to coordinate decision making and risk-taking, helping to streamline planning and making it easier to deliver and speed-up major projects which would instil a sense of confidence within investors.

It’s time to think big about how we remain competitive post-Brexit. We need radical solutions to problems that have dogged our economy for over 70 years otherwise there is a real threat that Britain falls down the global pecking order. 

A development deadlock is threatening to roll back years of strong productivity growth in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, an area that produces an annual GVA of £100bn according to government figures. That’s more than Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol combined.  

Bidwells’ recent research found that the pace of local economic growth has more than halved since 2015, falling from 2.7% in 2015 to 1% in 2018.

This area is significant to the UK’s ability to compete on the global stage post-Brexit. Its knowledge-based economy is home to some of the UK’s most innovative life sciences and tech firms who specialise in industries such as aerospace, future transport, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and aviation. Industry giants such as AstraZeneca, Apple and Microsoft already call the region home.

To support evolving British industries, planning laws must be adaptable to ever-changing market conditions. 

Momentum for radicalism building 

In January, the government said that a report by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange was being “seriously looked at”. 

The think tank called for councils to lose their powers to veto housing applications, meaning they would no longer be able to stop building in their area. 

Instead, there would be a system in which land was either approved for development or non-development. This is known as binary zonal planning. 

As noted in the report, developers would follow standardised rules that would be scrutinised by local planning officers.

As radical as they are, the reforms set out in the Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century paper must go further. 

We believe our Radical Regeneration Manifesto sets out 16 policy recommendations to radically overhaul the planning system and that if adopted would make Britain a more attractive place to invest and develop.

Locally-led development corporations? 

Launched last year, the report calls for the creation of an Olympic-style delivery body to stop development deadlock, with the Oxford-Cambridge Arc as a pilot case.

This new policy would bring together local councils and developers and make them responsible for delivering all new housing, transport links, social infrastructure and commercial space within the Arc, which is home to three million people.

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Mike Derbyshire

Partner, Head of Planning

Mike leads Bidwells’ planning practice. He is a passionate and vastly experienced advocate for thoughtful, well-designed development and a thought leader on the future of planning in England.

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