Chris Swan

In August 2020, the Government released its ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper designed to fundamentally reform England’s planning system,  The White Paper states that the Government’s ambition is to create a “significantly simpler, faster and more predictable system” to enable it to “build the homes our country needs, bridge the present generational divide and recreate an ownership society in which more people have the security and dignity of a home of their own”.

In this article, Chris Swan (Entrepreneur and Philanthropist) argues that whilst not perfect; the White Paper could well be the catalyst for change and the way to transform a previously politicised, complex and failing planning system.

“The current planning system has failed society and our environment in many ways. It will continue to do so in the future unless meaningful and incisive change is made now. The Government’s consultative White Paper on the planning process and meeting future housing requirements seeks to do just that and revolutionise the process, freeing it from politics, a failed administrative system and in some cases, self-interest.


The disturbing consequences of failure in the system is demonstrated by many facts. Over the last 10 years there have been 150,000 new housing unit starts per year on average compared to a recognised need of 300,000 units per year. The population has increased 4.5 million in that time and is forecast to increase by nearly 4 million in the next ten years passing 70 million.


The biggest concern for me is that there are currently 1,159,833 households on the local authority waiting lists. The hearts and souls behind each of these households have been let down by the current planning process where “not in my back yard” has robbed them of the dignity and welfare of the decent home they deserve.


Lack of housing supply is all reflected in house prices. The average price of a home in England has raised from £167,354 to £239,196 in the last ten years. This is down almost entirely to supply and demand, be it land banking, or the harm caused by lack of planning approvals in our current deficient system. With anticipated population growth and lack of supply, prices will continue to rise. How do my children get on the housing ladder when entry is now beginning to be impossible with house price increases combined with the great economic uncertainty we are all currently seeing?


The economic benefits from getting the planning system right is plain for all to see. It is a great boost to the economy and also satisfies and addresses real social needs. After the depression of 1929/30 The UK embarked on an accelerated housebuilding program, building 133,000 homes in 1931 and 293,000 in 1932(a figure not far of today’s targets but with a population at the time of only 46 million). The program of house building continued until 1935 and it accounted for a third of all new jobs created and 30% of the annual increase in UK Gross Domestic Product in the period. This program of housebuilding became the trigger that lifted the UK out of depression.


I can demonstrate the flaws of the current planning process by my own experience. I have developed many houses as well as commercial property in both the USA and the UK. A recent application I submitted in the UK had the recommendation of the planning officers, having widely consulted themselves. Pressure was applied by a local resident’s association to the local councillor who made sure the application was called in by the planning committee for review and approval. This committee (made up entirely of local councillors, eager not to disappoint a powerful group of constituents and with no professional planning skills) rejected the proposal. This has happened with so many of my peers. Housing needs suffer. Communities are robbed of their needs.


The new White Paper seeks to simplify and modernise the planning process, giving greater input to local residents at land allocation stage, improving design and sustainability and ensuring more land is allocated for development. Another by product is to improve and, in some cases, increase the financial level of developer contributions to the community as well.


The White Paper states that Land will be allocated under three categories -Growth; Renewal and Protected.  Growth areas will be deemed suitable for substantial development and schemes will receive outline approval for certain uses specified in the Local Plan. Renewal areas will be suitable for some development such as gentle densification and Protected areas will most likely restrict development.


The question then remains, to what extent are Local Planning Authorities held accountable to fulfilling a supply of achievable sites located in the Growth category? Will the local planning authority have the will to commit properly to the needs of its area? The Paper is silent on this.


The White Paper has stated it will take a radical, digital-first approach to modernise the planning process. This shift from a reliance on the completion of paper documents to a process driven by data and online standardisation will not only make the process a faster one but will allow easier and closer scrutiny as more people can access documents with ease.  This increase in speed, again if fulfilled, will increase development rates and therefore the number of successful homes built as it takes ambiguity away from the developer and leaves them with a clearer timetable that can be easily predicted with certainty, limiting the need for long term pipeline goals and creating more certainty for investors.


In addition, the data driven system will recognise trends and needs where the document system failed before. Quality, informed applications will emerge meaning more land will become available and the many housing needs of our communities will be fulfilled.


The proposed White Paper will result in a system that is easier, less costly, quicker to navigate and result in more land for development. It will ensure greater democracy in the planning process, particularly at the Local Plan Phase, which is then enhanced through technology and access to information.


“Growth “areas will in some cases be granted “permission in principal”, removing barriers to development and taking years off the planning stages of a major scheme (can currently take ten years to navigate).


The widespread uses of the Community Infrastructure Levy as opposed to S106 payments allows developer contributions to be easily calculated prior to development rather than lengthy negotiation with a planning Authority, again removing yet another barrier to development.


True local democracy will be enhanced with detailed community involvement in local plans and democracy will be stronger through technology and clarity.


In summary there are eight proposed improvements covered in the White Paper : Local plans and easier individual and community input; Renewal and regeneration detailed planning; Thirty-month time lines (half the current average ) to produce local plans; Scrapping of S106 payments in favour of CIL which is far better at getting money for infrastructure into community hands; Top down housing targets recognising accurately local community needs and forecasting accurately  rises in communities and diversity; Designating protected areas; More permitted development and a comprehensive new digital planning system.


Whilst it may not go far enough (there is an argument to say that greater local involvement is given to residents who designate areas for development but thereafter the process is taken out of a political process of approval into independent property professionals thus avoiding political interference) it is a major step forward. Indeed, within the White Paper a new design code body will be set up and it will have the role of supporting local authorities in the creation of local design codes and each local authority will be expected to employ a senior officer for design and “place making” to oversee quality. Local design codes must have community input


We have to provide the dignity and security of housing to all people in our society at a rental or purchase price that is affordable as well as creating sustainable, green development and enhancing and protecting the environment of the beautiful country we live in.


We owe it to the next generation, so our grandchildren can afford their own home in a community that is part of their roots.


Hopefully the White Paper will be the trigger and catalyst for change.”

About Chris Swan:

Chris Swan is an entrepreneur and philanthropist .He has built and listed three companies on the London Stock Market in media, financial services and automotive and now develops commercial and residential property in the USA and UK. Chris has been recognized with awards such as “Financial Times Entrepreneur of the Year” and EEC’s “Top Job Creator”.

Chris has sat on Public bodies such as the NHS Foundation Trust for Worcestershire and fundraised for a number of causes close to himself .


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