Legal Source of Power Underpinning the Land Use Planning System

Firstly, a legal source of power, usually vested within special purpose urban or environmental planning legislation, is needed to operationalise the bureaucratic and development control functions of urban planning systems. This overarching or ‘enabling’ legislation provides a basis for preparing subsidiary land use plans and development controls to regulate the types of activities that may or may not be carried out on a particular site.

However, a limitation is that these controls are usually confined to future development, rather than to existing land uses already in operation. Nor can the planning system require that a particular development takes place. Therefore, even though it is common for planning instruments to seek to increase particular types of development, such as new housing to meet projected population growth, implementation largely depends on private firms and actors.

The Need for Permission to Carry Out Change in the Built or Natural Environment

So aside from previously mentioned forms of public sector development (including, historically, social housing provision), the planning system is generally confined to a regulatory role, reacting to proposals from private developers. This leads to the second characteristic of land use planning systems—the need for permission to carry out change. Although each jurisdiction will have a different threshold for planning permission, this basic need for consent to carry out change, defined in legislation, is the trigger for the planning system to come into operation, at least in respect of private land and development. It is important to remember that most countries regulate activities in the built environment under a variety of different laws which might range from building codes to environmental protection legislation. In some jurisdictions, building codes will regulate many types of activities, including the construction of dwelling houses, without the need for additional ‘planning’ permission. Sometimes, these rules are integrated with and reflect the objectives of the planning system or local plans, but there is an important distinction. That is, that unlike permissions obtained under a planning system, building controls and codes regulate how construction takes place, not whether or not it can proceed at all.

The thresholds for requiring planning permission, and the standards which need to be met before such permission will be issued, can vary significantly between local jurisdictions. Significant variation in local planning controls is observed in the UK and the USA, for instance, where local government units have a high degree of autonomy over their local development plans and codes (Bramley and Leishman 2005; Pendall et al. 2006; White and Allmendinger 2003).

If the regulatory requirements for obtaining permission are viewed as too onerous—and the costs of securing permission (and complying with the regulatory requirements in carrying out the development) are not able to be sufficiently offset by the anticipated profit, then changes in land use will not come about, at least in the short term. In some situations, this is an appropriate outcome. For instance, when industrial or commercial areas are offering local employment opportunities, it may be sufficient to identify these areas as appropriate for future increases in development intensity but to allow these changes to occur gradually, allowing time for businesses to relocate over time as land values rise in response to increased population growth and residential demand. However, in the case of housing, it has been suggested that when one local authority is perceived to have an overly negative stance towards development, potential growth may be diverted elsewhere, placing pressure on a regional housing market (Monk et al. 1996).

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