Rescue Says: a government fixated on simplification of planning law is not good for our future environment

The government has produced a White Paper for England on planning “Planning for the Future August 2020” from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) which can be downloaded from https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future and is open for consultation until 29 October. The core proposals, which relate to local plans, ways of managing the planning system and developer financial contributions, would require primary legislation after this consultation – so the next stage will be a bill in Parliament. Given the current political situation it is unlikely that any bill will be substantially amended before becoming law, so the current consultation is a key moment for questions and comment.

Initial reading of the paper suggests that there are a good many aspirational outcomes, such as supporting the revitalisation of existing buildings, that are not closely related to the actual proposals. As we and other heritage organisations have frequently pointed out, the revitalisation of existing buildings will only be an attractive alternative to new build when the VAT duty is the same (currently zero on new build and 20% on repairs). Key objectives in the document include building more homes to increase home ownership, a simpler and faster planning system and a modernised digital access system – the latter apparently to be based on “PropTech” (Property Technology, the application of information technology and platform economics to real estate markets according to Wikipedia). As ever we are being told that it is the planning system that delays housebuilding (not companies sitting on land with existing permissions) and that what is needed is, according to the Secretary of State’s introduction, “cutting red tape, but not standards”.  As we said at the end of June (Rescue Says, https://rescue-archaeology.org.uk/2020/06/rescue-says-build-build-build-but-what-about-the-consequences/) we need more and better regulation, not less.

The main thrust of the proposals is about rebalancing the system towards defined planning outcomes through the local plan system, with everywhere classed as either “Growth” or “Renewal” or “Protected” areas, the first two defined as allowing development to take place – removing the “uncertainty” for applicants around the individual determination of all planning applications.

Sadly archaeology is not mentioned at all in this document – the assurance will be, no doubt, that the system will still adhere to the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) that includes policy for the historic environment; but there is also mention of a new version of NPPF to accommodate the new approach. Clearly designated sites of national importance (e.g. Scheduled Monuments, Listed Buildings and World Heritage Sites) will form part of the “Protected” areas. But most of the archaeology in England is undesignated, a mixture of sites recorded in the local HERs (Historic Environment Records) and sites that are, so far, undiscovered. The current system allows for a process of archaeological assessment and evaluation, which may lead to full excavation but also allows for the protection of sufficiently important discoveries. It is far from clear how this will work under the new proposals and RESCUE and other archaeological bodies need to ask questions and make comments about the importance of the process. We will continue to post our thoughts on this, to give you as individuals the information to send in your own comments to MHCLG and to question your MP.

So there is a busy 12 weeks ahead for any organisation concerned that ideology is driving a rushed series of changes through an admittedly complex system – but the environment is complex and an over-simplified planning system could irrevocably damage it. A knowledge of the historic environment can contribute immensely to understanding and improving individual places but not simply via a series of tick boxes.

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