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How Towns Make Zoning Changes Through Local Planning Processes

By Expert Author: Chris Westerman

Planning changes can revitalize local economies, benefitting old and new inhabitants alike. But how does planning work – and what does it mean to developers?

When the new UK National Planning Policy Framework was published in March 2012, it signaled several bold and important steps forward for communities, developers, UK land investors and their ultimate occupants, both residents and businesses. Priorities included shifting authority for local plans to communities (as opposed to regional or national authorities), a reduction in paperwork and jargon, expedited approval processes, as well as an emphasis on historic and natural environment preservation as well as raising design standards.

This comes after a long evolution of the planning process that is necessary in a growing, modern society, but one which was often regarded as obstructionist and bureaucratic. Modern planning as a discipline in the UK began in the late 19th century with the “garden city movement,” which emphasized parks (or “greenbelts”) surrounded by self-contained communities, with what were considered to be appropriate proportions of agriculture, residences, commerce and industry.

Evolving building methods, the skyscraper in particular, along with an increasingly motorized society and the Second World War ushered in new eras in how cities and towns function and are organized. Planning methods and priorities have evolved over time to accommodate these changes – and not without politics, competing economic interests and occasional rancor. The Localism Act 2011 and the Planning Act 2008 are the most recent iterations of this evolution.

What Britain encounters today in broad brush is an increasing population – 7 percent growth between 2001 and 2011, which other parts of Europe are experiencing stagnant and sometimes declining populations – and a current shortage of housing to keep up with this growth rate. Further, a widespread concern for the environment is affecting planning on two levels: one is to build in such a way as to minimize humanity’s impact on natural systems, and the second is to protect new development from the impact of climate change. The country remains committed to the provision of social housing, however how much and to what degree will always generate debate.

How planning changes unfold

With greater authority on the local district or borough level, planning does its best to negotiate these many variables. In the evolution of modern planning in the UK, a top-down authoritarian process has yielded to a hybrid of professional expertise overlaying a very democratic planning and development method. This necessarily means that economic interests driven by elected officials, employers and developers will intersect and often (but not always) complement the interests of community organizers and social workers.

In some districts, the need for new development is clear and universally felt, with all parties amenable to a zoning change that will rapidly lead to the arrival of bulldozers, utilities and new street grids.

But that is not always the case. An employer or employers may decry the shortage of appropriate workers in a region and hesitate to establish or grow operations before housing and transportation are expanded to bring in those employees. But while the general populace may not be aware of that, elected officials and planning authorities might be in conversations with developers and investors who want to build to accommodate growth. Then, the proposals for new development may be aired through a public consultation process.

It is then beholden on developers to solicit input from existing residents and businesses regarding the zoning changes. Larger developments might conduct community education programs through local media, including online as well as traditional print and broadcast outlets. Input from environmental and heritage agencies is often solicited as well.

While this can involve extensive campaigning and political deal making, the process of getting community approval for planning changes can also be smooth and collaborative. Ultimately, it is in the developers’ best interests to establish friendly and cooperative relationships with the neighbors.

Investors in land development – those who buy raw land or brownfield tracks that might be remediated, as well as those who construct homes, retail stores, commercial structures and industrial buildings – of course hope for a smooth and easy process. Some properties and planning authorities are simply more likely to make changes than others, for a variety of reasons. Currently, the pressing need for housing provides strong impetus to alter land use zoning.

Individuals interested in investing in land or real estate development necessarily should be concerned about local planning authority’s oversight of land use. But as with all investments, those investors need to consider how buying real assets fit within their overall financial portfolio. This is optimally done with an independent (i.e., neutral) investment advisor.

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