Building better places Contents

Chapter 2: The built environment: recent trends and emerging challenges

17.The decision making which produces our built environment has many different dimensions. National government and local government play a range of roles across multiple policy areas, such as housing, highways, regeneration, environmental management and infrastructure. Across this complex field, the planning system plays a key role in managing land-use and providing a decision making structure within which acceptable development can take place.

The built environment and the planning system

18.The planning system plays a major part in shaping our built environment, through both the production and adoption of plans and the scrutiny and approval (or rejection) of proposals for development. The centrality of the plan-led system in forming and structuring the built environment was emphasised across much of the evidence that we received.

19.The modern history of town planning in England can be traced back to the late 1800s, with the development of enlightened model communities in Saltaire (1853), Bournville (1878) and Port Sunlight (1887). On a number of occasions we were reminded of the strong links between planning and public health in that period.8 This link was perhaps exemplified in the work of Sir Ebenezer Howard, who produced the first proposals for garden cities9 and was instrumental in the development and construction of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities.

20.The Housing, Town Planning, Etc. Act 1909 was the first piece of legislation to reference town planning in its title. The legislation sought to improve urban housing through the preparation of ‘schemes’ by local authorities. It did not, however, fundamentally alter the preceding system of land-use control and management, which relied heavily upon bye-laws. The inter-war period saw intensive house-building, with 2.7 million homes built in England and Wales between 1930 and 1940. At the outbreak of the Second World War one-third of all the houses in England and Wales had been built since 1918.10 The pace of urbanisation in this period (particularly in south-east England) led to growing concerns over ‘urban sprawl’. Piecemeal legislative initiatives such as the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act 1935 sought to address this. It was not until the post-war period however, with the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, that the current approach to land-use management was first instituted.

21.The 1947 Act required local authorities to produce forward-looking policy documents to set out where and how land might be developed within their areas. It also required proposals for development (with limited exceptions) to secure planning permission from the relevant local authority. This plan-led approach, with its distinction between ‘plan making’ and ‘decision taking’, has been fundamental to the success of the planning system and has endured throughout a number of subsequent updates and changes to legislation. Plans produced by local authorities, along with decisions taken in accordance with policies in those plans, have served as major determinants of local built environments.

The balance between national and local

22.Local authorities play a key role in planning for, developing and managing the built environment within their administrative boundaries. Councils are responsible for developing a local plan, which sets out planning policies and allocates sites for different types of development. They are also responsible for development management, including the processing of planning applications and their determination, either by the Planning Committee or by officers with delegated responsibility.

23.There are, however, national elements to this system. Local plans must, prior to adoption, be able to demonstrate that they accord with national planning policy and guidance, issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Such plans are publicly examined by the Planning Inspectorate for England and Wales, a quasi-judicial agency of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Applicants who are denied planning permission by the local authority also have the right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, which may overturn the decision.

24.In addition, the Government has long taken the lead in establishing and prioritising national infrastructure needs,11 and the Planning Act 2008 introduced a simplified system of National Policy Statements for larger scale infrastructure projects. Certain decisions pertaining to nationally significant infrastructure are taken by the Secretary of State (see paragraph 46). There are also a wide range of executive agencies of national government, such as Historic England, Highways England and the Environment Agency, which are responsible for various aspects of the built environment and serve as statutory consultees for many types of planning application.

25.While local authorities therefore play a key role in shaping priorities and spatial developments within their boundaries, they undertake this work within a framework of policy established nationally and are required to adhere to the decisions of the national Planning Inspectorate. They are also required to work with and respond to various national level agencies, funders and decision makers. The built environment is a product of national and local priorities, policies, deliberations and decisions.

Recent policy changes and initiatives

26.The core principles of the planning system have, as detailed in paragraph 21, been long-established and have remained relatively unaltered. Successive governments have, though, sought to respond to challenges within the built environment by reforming planning policies, processes and structures. This has, for example, included the use of Development Corporations to drive regeneration in the 1980s, and the introduction of regional plans and strategies in the 2000s. The Coalition Government carried out a number of reforms to the planning system, with a move towards ‘localism’ placed at the heart of many of the initiatives. National planning policy was simplified and streamlined, regional plans, and their associated housing targets, were abolished and neighbourhood plans were introduced. The current Government offered its own assessment of the situation in 2010, and the approach subsequently taken:

“In 2010, the Government inherited a broken planning system which was centralised, bureaucratic and complex, and which alienated and disempowered local communities. Planning reforms delivered through legislation and the National Planning Policy Framework were essential to deliver the necessary homes and infrastructure by working with and not against local communities”.12

27.The following paragraphs briefly outline the principal reforms that took place from 2010 to 2015. They provide important context for much of the evidence that we received and many of the current challenges facing the built environment.

The National Planning Policy Framework

28.Prior to 2012, national planning policy guidance in England was contained in 25 Planning Policy Statements (often known as ‘PPSs’), each of which dealt with a specific area of policy.13 In March 2012 these were consolidated and simplified into a single 52 page document, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).14 The NPPF sets out broad national policies on themes such as housing, town centres, design, climate change and the Green Belt.

29.Central to the broad policy direction contained within the NPPF is the notion of sustainable development; development which effectively balances economic, social and environmental factors. Box Two describes the definition of sustainable development used in the NPPF.

Box 2: The NPPF, sustainable development and the roles of the planning system

The National Planning Policy Framework defines the dimensions of sustainable development as follows:

“There are three dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. These dimensions give rise to the need for the planning system to perform a number of roles:

an economic role—contributing to building a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right type is available in the right places and at the right time to support growth and innovation; and by identifying and coordinating development requirements, including the provision of infrastructure;

a social role—supporting strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by providing the supply of housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by creating a high quality built environment, with accessible local services that reflect the community’s needs and support its health, social and cultural well-being; and

an environmental role—contributing to protecting and enhancing our natural, built and historic environment; and, as part of this, helping to improve biodiversity, use natural resources prudently, minimise waste and pollution and mitigate and adapt to climate change including moving to a low carbon economy.”

Source: DCLG, National Planning Policy Framework 2012.

30.The NPPF also introduced a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. If the planning policies of a local authority are deemed to be out-of-date, or there is no appropriate local plan in place, it is presumed that a development proposal should go ahead as long as the applicant for planning permission can demonstrate that their proposals are in accordance with the NPPF. When initially proposed this was the source of some controversy, with bodies such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England concerned that it would favour economic and housing development over protection and preservation.15

31.In our call for evidence we sought views on the operation of the NPPF since its introduction in 2012, and the order of priority accorded to the various different policy strands contained within the NPPF. A number of issues were raised regarding both the policy content of the NPPF, and the way in which it has been implemented by local authorities and others. These matters are considered in subsequent chapters of this report.

The Localism Act 2011 and the duty to co-operate

32.Some issues relating to the built environment are too large and too strategic to be dealt with solely by individual local authorities. The response to such issues can, in some circumstances, merit action from national government—major transport infrastructure such as High Speed 2, for example. Other matters, such as regional transport or the delivery of housing across a wider housing market area need other, sub-national interventions.

33.Prior to 2011 a regional approach was taken to these matters. England was sub-divided into nine regions, each of which was tasked with producing a Regional Spatial Strategy.16 In London, this was led by the Mayor, who is required to produce a London Plan under the terms of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Outside London, the work was led by the regional assemblies until 2009, when it was assumed by a partnership of local authority leaders and the regional development agency.

34.Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) were developed for each of the eight regions outside London, with initial proposals being subject to extensive consultation and, ultimately, examination in public by the Planning Inspectorate. They established a broad spatial plan for the region in question, addressed sub-regional issues which crossed administrative boundaries and set out a regional transport strategy as part of their wider approach. RSSs also established housing figures (‘targets’) for district and unitary local authorities to take forward in their local plans; this element of the RSS provoked public opposition in some local areas.17

35.The Localism Act 2011 abolished the RSSs and, instead, sought to address ‘larger than local’ issues through the introduction of a new duty to co-operate.18 Local authorities are now required to co-operate with neighbouring authorities on cross-boundary issues when developing their local plans; the extent to which the duty to co-operate has been observed is tested by the Planning Inspectorate when examining local plan proposals.

36.We sought evidence on the practical effect of these changes, in addition to asking broader questions regarding the appropriate spatial levels at which decisions on the built environment should be taken. The final chapter of this report offers an assessment of the current situation.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

37.The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was an executive non-departmental public body which provided advice on architecture, design and public space in England. Established in 1999 as a response to the Urban Task Force, CABE was jointly funded by both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). It disseminated best practice on design issues, and organised research and training, for local authorities, public sector agencies, central government, developers and the public at large. CABE was heavily involved in the development of national standards for the built environment, embodied in guidance such as Building for Life and Manual for Streets. It also provided a design review service, with expert panels scrutinising and suggesting refinements for nationally significant new developments.19

38.In April 2011 CABE closed, as a result of the decision to withdraw central Government funding in the 2010 Spending Review.20 The design review function was merged into the Design Council, and continues to be offered on a commercial basis through Design Council CABE. The Design Council commissioned a study, chaired by Peter Bishop, a Director of Allies and Morrison Architects21, to review design support within the built environment following the closure of CABE.

39.The impact of the closure of CABE, and the loss of central funding and national leadership on some of the matters addressed by CABE, was highlighted in much of the evidence that we received. We also took oral evidence from the Design Council, and from Professor Bishop. These matters are considered in further detail in the next chapter of this report.

The Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment

40.In January 2013 Ed Vaizey MP, then Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, asked the architect Sir Terry Farrell CBE to undertake a review of architecture and the built environment. The review was asked to focus on four areas:

41.Following extensive public consultation, Sir Terry reported in March 2014. A major theme of the published review was the lack of cohesion and continuity in the approach taken to the built environment by central Government. The review stated that “the built environment has continuously been divided between government departments” and contrasted this with “other government departments [that] have long-standing continuity”.22 The review identified five current Government departments (DCMS, DCLG, BIS, DEFRA and DfT) that currently held built environment responsibilities.

42.The review also called for a more holistic approach to built environment issues on the part of institutions and practitioners, suggesting a new emphasis on ‘place’. Sir Terry suggested that PLACE could be understood as a holistic acronym, representing:

He argued that design reviews and institutional relationships should be reconsidered to seek to take account of the requirement for joint working between and across these ‘PLACE’ disciplines.23 The review also noted that the Government has a Chief Medical Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Veterinary Officer, Chief Planner and Chief Construction Adviser, and called for the appointment of a Chief Architect to ensure proper representation of built environment professions.24

43.The Government has yet to issue a formal response to the Farrell Review. DCMS told us that Mr Vaizey had “challenged the sector to prioritise those recommendations as the ones that it wishes to take forward and to take a key leadership role in the implementation”.25 In October 2014 organisations and individuals within the sector joined together to launch the Place Alliance, a voluntary movement focused on collaboratively addressing a range of the Farrell Review recommendations.26

44.Max Farrell, who played a key role in the review, told us that his initial response “was one of slight disappointment that there had not been a formal response from the Government when it was a Government-commissioned review, but also after all the extensive consultation that had taken place throughout the country”.27 Themes arising from the Farrell Review were featured and considered in the evidence that we heard.

Government initiatives since May 2015

The National Infrastructure Commission

45.The National Planning Policy Framework states that local authorities, in drawing up their plans, should include strategic policies to “deliver the provision of infrastructure for transport, telecommunications, waste management, water supply, wastewater, flood risk and coastal change management, and the provision of minerals and energy (including heat)”.28

46.Beyond the local level, decisions on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects29 (NSIPs) are taken at the national level, where the Secretary of State makes a decision on whether or not to award a Development Consent Order, which obviates the need for a range of further consents (such as planning permission and compulsory purchase orders). These decisions are made in accordance with policy contained in a number of National Policy Statements dealing with different types of infrastructure.

47.Business groups have long been critical of the pace of infrastructure delivery in the UK. In a submission before the 2014 Autumn Statement, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) stated that “the UK is trailing the rest of the world in infrastructure development”, highlighting the World Economic Forum’s 2014–15 Global Competitiveness report, which ranked the UK 27th for overall quality of infrastructure—the second lowest in the G7. The BCC went on to state that:

“Current delays in the planning process of infrastructure projects are costing taxpayers. Delays to the construction of the A12 Hackney to M11 link road are estimated to have increased the cost of the project by 100%. In 1994, the cost of building Crossrail was expected to be £1.55bn, but it was subject to delays as opponents questioned the business case. When construction finally commenced in 2009, the cost had increased to £14.8bn”.30

48.In a bid to address these problems, the Government announced the appointment of a National Infrastructure Commission in October 2015.31 The Commission is intended to be an independent body which will look broadly at long-term infrastructure needs and provide impartial advice to ministers and Parliament. It will be asked to research, analyse and publish an assessment of major infrastructure needs and priorities for the UK every five years. It will, in the early part of its operation, focus on northern transport connectivity, London transport and energy efficiency. A consultation on the structure and organisation of the Commission began in January 2016.32

Responding to the housing crisis

49.House building in England has been on a long-term downward trend since the late 1960s; post-war delivery peaked in 1968 when 352,540 dwellings were completed.33 The figure for the 12 months up to the end of March 2015 is 124,490, which represents a slight recovery from the post-war low experienced in 2010/11 (107,870).34 Figure One provides an illustration of the long-term trend in housing completions in England:

Figure 1: House building, permanent dwellings completed by tenure, England, 1946–2014

Image showing number of dwellings of completed by tenure for private enterprise, housing associations and local authorities from 1946-2014

Source: DCLG, House Building: September Quarter 2015, England (November 2015)

50.The long-term decline in completions, coupled with increases in population, is having an effect on affordability. In 2013 the average house price to annual earnings ratio in London stood at 14:1; across England as a whole the ratio was just under 12:1.35 Such ratios are commonly considered to be unaffordable to most, and particularly to first-time buyers; many mortgage lenders will now only supply loans up to a maximum value of four and a half times annual earnings.36

Figure 2: House price to earnings ratios, England and London, 2004–2013

Line graph showing price to earnings ratio from 2004-2013 for London and England

Source: Adapted from ONS, Trends in the United Kingdom Housing Market (September 2014)

51.A pledge to build 200,000 starter homes37 over the lifetime of the Parliament was included in the Conservative party manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Since coming to office, the Government has sought to take steps to achieve this objective, but has also intensified its activity and focus on housing supply more generally. In the Productivity Plan, published by HM Treasury in July 2015, the Government stated:

“The UK has been incapable of building enough homes to keep up with growing demand. This harms productivity and restricts labour market flexibility, and it frustrates the ambitions of thousands of people who would like to own their own home”.38

52.The Productivity Plan goes on to set out a number of steps that the Government will take to seek to increase housing supply. These include:

These measures were referenced in some of the evidence that we received; many have also influenced the content of the Housing and Planning Bill. We give further detailed consideration to housing supply issues in Chapter Five of this report.

Reducing regulation and increasing speed

53.As part of its wider effort to increase housing supply the Government has also committed to reducing the amount and extent of regulation facing housebuilders. This was emphasised in the Productivity Plan, which stated that the Government did not intend to proceed with the zero carbon allowable solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or an increase in on-site energy efficiency standards that had been proposed for 2016.39

54.Such moves were part of a wider trend towards deregulation within planning and built environment policy. In October 2015 the Government announced permanent changes to permitted development rights, making it easier to convert office properties into housing, without a requirement for full planning permission.40 Changes have also been made to planning practice guidance to reduce the affordable housing requirements placed on developers.41 The proposals for ‘permission in principle’ contained in the Housing and Planning Bill are intended to reduce the burdens placed upon developers at the planning application stage, by identifying and confirming from the outset the intended use for the land in question.

55.The Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Brandon Lewis MP, told us about his emphasis on speeding up the process:

“We want to look again at the planning process, not policy but the planning process, because one of the other challenges is that you can get planning permission but then spend a year or two discussing and debating a Section 106 agreement, pre-start conditions and various other bits and pieces. We need to look at condensing that so we still get the right result but do it without too much slowing down of bureaucracy … We are not going to be adding any more bureaucracy or red tape to the process. If anything, I want to try and speed it up”.42

56.Both the property development industry and the National Housing Federation noted that the requirement to reach agreement on Section 106 planning obligations can slow down the commencement of building on sites with planning permission.43 The National Housing Federation recommended that “draft Section 106 agreements should be submitted as part of the pre-application process, frontloading the negotiations.” It also recommended a dispute resolution mechanism to speed up negotiations where parties do not agree.44

Concluding remarks

57.The Committee has undertaken its work at a time when there is great deal of change taking place to the planning system, and to the ways in which major built environment challenges are considered and addressed. Over the course of our work, the Government has intensified its focus on increasing and speeding up the supply of housing. We have sought, however, to focus not only upon much-needed initiatives to increase the overall quantity of housing, but also to consider the need for creating better places, and for quality and high standards in new provision. Housing has dominated the discourse in this field in recent months; while housing is an issue of central importance, it is only one element of the built environment. We have tried to give equal weight to the many other components of the built environment which help to place housing in its proper context. We have sought to take account of interactions and relationships across the many different types of land-use, places and spaces that constitute the ‘built environment’. In addition, we have based our approach on the longer-term; decisions taken regarding the built environment have long-term impacts and implications which can be neglected in the drive to respond to short-term priorities.

58.We broadly welcome and support the Government’s focus on increasing and speeding up the supply of housing. We discuss specific initiatives and proposals intended to further this aim in Chapter Five of this report.

59.We are concerned, however, that the focus on quantity of housing must not work to the long-term detriment of planning for the whole of the built environment and the delivery of high quality development. Moves towards deregulation of the planning system, coupled with an intensification of housebuilding, have the potential to exert significant enduring impacts upon the built environment in England. A consistent theme across much of the remainder of this report is the need for quality, as well as quantity, and the need to think about long-term implications for ‘place’, as well as the important and more immediate need for more housing.

8 See, for example, Q 115 (Dr Hugh Ellis)

9 Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: A peaceful Path to Real Reform (London: S. Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd, 1898)

10 Barry Cullingworth, Vincent Nadin et al, Town and Country Planning in the UK, 15th edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), p 21

11 See, for example, HM Treasury, National Infrastructure Plan 2014 (December 2014): [accessed on 27 January 2016]

12 Written evidence from the Department for Communities and Local Government (BEN0190)

13 Planning Policy Statement 3, for example, dealt with housing; PPS 5 concerned the historic environment.

14 Department for Communities and Local Government, National Planning Policy Framework (March 2012): [accessed on 10 February 2016]

15 Damian Carrington, ‘Planning law changes: the crux is defining sustainable development’, The Guardian (26 July 2011): [accessed on 27 January 2016]

16 Outside London, these arrangements were introduced in 2004 and replaced earlier Structure Plans, which were based on County-level agreements between local authorities.

17 Communities and Local Government Committee, Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum (Second Report of Session 2010–12, HC517)

18 A number of other corresponding changes to regional institutions were introduced in 2010–11, including the abolition of regional development agencies and Government Offices for the Regions. Structures and planning requirements in London were left largely unaltered.

19 This included funded regional review panels covering the whole of England.

20 Limited two-year transitional funding was provided to Design Council CABE in order to establish a design review function.

21 Now also Professor of Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.

22 The Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, Our future in place (March 2014) Executive Summary, p 7: [accessed on 27 January 2016). Hereafter referred to as ‘Farrell Review’.

23 Ibid. p 9

24 Farrell Review, Executive Summary, p 31

25 Q 22 (Gill Graham)

26 Written evidence from the Place Alliance (BEN0143)

27 Q 29 (Max Farrell)

28 Department for Communities and Local Government, National Planning Policy Framework (March 2012), para 156: [accessed on 27 January 2016]

29 Large-scale projects often relating to energy, transport or waste.

30 British Chambers of Commerce, ‘Submission to 2014 Autumn Statement’ (November 2014):,-says-bcc.html [accessed on 27 January 2016]

31 National Infrastructure Commission, ‘Chancellor announces major plan to get Britain building’ (October 2015): [accessed on 27 January 2016]

32 HM Treasury, National Infrastructure Commission: consultation, Cm 9182, January 2016: [accessed on 27 January 2016]

33 Department for Communities and Local Government, House building: September Quarter 2015, England (November 2015): [accessed on 4 February 2016]

34 Figures taken from Department for Communities and Local Government, House building: September Quarter 2015, England (November 2015): [accessed on 4 February 2016] and from Office for National Statistics, Trends in the United Kingdom Housing Market, 2014 (September 2014): [accessed on 27 January 2016].

35 Office for National Statistics, Trends in the United Kingdom Housing Market, 2014 (September 2014): [accessed on 27 January 2016].

36 Nicole Blackmore, ‘Another mortgage lender reduces maximum loan size’, Daily Telegraph (3 March 2015):
[accessed on 27 January 2016]

37 See Chapter Five for more discussion of starter homes.

38 HM Treasury, Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation, Cm 9098, July 2015, p 43: [accessed on 27 January 2016]

39 HM Treasury, Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation, Cm 9098, July 2015, p 46: [accessed on 27 January 2016]

40 Department for Communities and Local Government, ‘Thousands more homes to be developed in planning shake-up’ (13 October 2015): [accessed on 27 January 2016]

41 Written evidence from London Borough of Islington (BEN0183)

42 QQ 333-334 (Brandon Lewis MP)

43 Q 102 (Chris Carr), Q 185 (Adrian Penfold)

44 Written evidence from National Housing Federation (BEN0152)

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