Who needs use classes?

4 April 2002 A J

BY BRIAN WATERS

No apologies for returning to the subject of the government’s Green Paper on planning reform published last December.
To quote Malcolm Grant, editor of the Planning Law Encyclopaedia: ‘The government’s proposals have been widely portrayed, not least by the planning minister Lord Falconer, as the most radical reforms of the last 50 years. That description must clearly be right. Indeed, it is remarkable just how far reaching the proposals are. ‘This is not a re-run of the limp planning reform aspirations held by every government of the last 20 years, but something of real substance. It challenges many of the implicit assumptions of the present system. It seeks efficiency and transparency. It does not simply aim its weaponry on local authorities; it drives its tanks unhesitatingly on to the government’s own lawns.’
While this is wholly refreshing, it tends more to rhetorical gusto than to intellectual depth; much of the necessary detail is simply absent. ‘It would not pass muster as a detailed planning permission, ‘ says Grant. He observes that the government knows roughly where it wants to go, but it has not yet fashioned the route for getting there. Useless classes
Unfortunately, this thrust does not apply to its final consultation paper on the Use Classes Order, which was released late in January. Far from suggesting ‘a fundamental reform’ it barely tinkers at the edges. It comprises a summary of a consultant’s report and a series of options for change. The net effect of all the suggested changes would be a Use Classes Order with maybe 35 classes rather than the current 33 or so.Worse, one of these is a strong suggestion, unsupported by the work of the consultants, to reintroduce the old ‘light industrial’ use class under a new name so as to distinguish it from office, research and development and suchlike ‘clean’ employment uses. This would be a retrograde step indeed and serves no demonstrated purpose.
The second reason for disappointment with this document is its failure to recognise the contribution which a radical reappraisal of the use classes Order might make towards the streamlining objectives of the Green Paper itself. Like the Green Paper, there is no attempt to define or redefine its purpose or that of the planning system. By establishing dozens of use classes so as to establish the need to regulate changes between them, it imposes a high level of control and makes significant demands on the resources of planning authorities. To simply sweep it away would go some way towards achieving the principal objectives of the whole planning reform agenda. It should therefore be incumbent upon government to review and then justify the need for more than one class. The final frontier
It is more than 10 years since the profession’s favourite estate agent, David Rosen (Hon RIBA), made a cogent case for there being only one use class which he called ‘space’. In truth, the time has come to press this argument. The ACA planning group, in its response, points out that the government’s paper on planning obligations would allow for only three classes: private uses including charities; commercial uses which are defined as uses for profit; and noxious uses.
It argues that there should be far fewer use classes and greater flexibility within the use class system. In particular, it notes that many controls already exist outside of, but relevant to, the planning system. These include, for example, noise and pollution controls through environmental health and licensing regulations and disabled access and safety controls under the Building Regulations. It has long been established that legislative controls should not overlap.
Planning reform would be aided by a greater recognition that many things that are argued about under the pretext of being planning matters can be left well alone, to be dealt with by other means. If there is to be more than one use class, the justification should relate specifically to land use policy issues and not impinge on environmental and such potential conflicts. Taxing times In its consultation response to the paper on reforming planning obligations, the ACA supports the standard tariff-based approach for planning obligations which is proposed, provided that tariffs replace ‘Section 106 agreements’ which will become unnecessary if the promised certainty and transparency is achieved. They emphasise: ‘The planning system should not be forced to take on the function of providing social benefits such as affordable housing.’
Acceptance of these two points would go some way to satisfying the strong objections of the property industry, demonstrated by Property Week’s ‘Byers Beware’ campaign, which sees the proposed tariffs as an attempt to reintroduce development land tax. 

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, brian@bwcp.co.uk/ www.bwcp.co.uk