Last reviewed 4 May 2015

During the current “planning interregnum”, because of the general election, David Alexander examines recent indications on where planning might go under an incoming government.

Recent research

Research at the Bartlett School of Planning highlighted the deregulatory changes to the planning system since 2010, against significant resource cuts for local planning authorities. The planning system is increasingly flawed through the following.

  • The failure of central government to provide a strong, coherent and relevant planning agenda beyond the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG). Social inequality is largely ignored and environmental sustainability given less attention. Plan making has reduced and planning-by-appeal is more common.

  • The failure to provide adequate strategic planning at sub-national (regional) scales. Issues such as public infrastructure and housing require this level of planning. Regional inequalities remain and the statutory local authority duty to cooperate is largely ineffectual.

  • A democratic deficit within planning. Neighbourhood planning has involved local, better off communities. This is contributing towards social inequalities with many neighbourhoods unable to create their own plan, compounded by local authority budget cuts.

  • An absence of planning tools to deliver public policy goals. Deregulation of development management, allied to inadequate plan making, is weakening the planning system. The use of planning gain to provide community needs places too much emphasis on promoting market-led development.

Change

The Bartlett research outlined five key ideas for radical improvement of the planning system.

  1. Planning should be for wellbeing, not just growth. The planning system relies on economic growth but this model has benefited a select few and caused increasing environmental harm through pollution and loss of natural resources. Economic development is needed for community benefit and sometimes developments are supported, simply to get this funding! Planning must rediscover fairness and collective wellbeing and become decoupled from narrow GDP drivers.

  2. Planning powers must be radically devolved. Genuine decentralisation is part of re-invigorated, participative and representative democracy. Current “localism” is not working since key planning powers remain with the Secretary of State. Planning must deal effectively with “larger than local” strategic issues. More effective regional frameworks are needed, especially for the major cities, such as the recent Greater Manchester Agreement between local authorities and Central Government. Devolved planning powers should determine how land is used.

  3. The benefits of planning regulation should be recognised. Deregulation has reduced the effectiveness of local planning to deliver the right kind of development in the right place at the right time. Regulation is needed to implement policies, prevent harm, control externalities and maximise social and environmental benefits. For example, the ability to change offices to residences has unintended consequences through evicting existing businesses and reducing daytime trade on both high streets and in local shops from office workers. Town centre and affordable housing planning are being undermined.

    Current policies allowing developers to demand renegotiation of affordable housing elements and refrain from setting affordable housing numbers should be replaced. Planning regulations are not a barrier to economic growth. In 2014, 88% of all planning applications were granted permission. Regulation ensures developers meet certain standards, retain amenities and protect the environment. Administered effectively and transparently, regulation allows the planning system to perform its vital societal role and improve the quality of development.

    Planners need a full toolkit to influence the nature of new development and meet housing needs including affordable housing targets. Regulation gives developers greater certainty.

  4. Land reform, including local land ownership and land value capture, is urgent. Since development rights over private land were nationalised in 1947, the financial benefits of development are increasingly concentrated in the hands of private landowners, with permitted development rights returned to them. Planning gains through negotiation with landowners have limited public benefit and remain small compared to the unearned value increase enjoyed by private owners when land is sold and developed. There is a need to rebalance the advantages shared by private owners and society as a whole. Perhaps the most effective way of getting money for infrastructure is to buy the land at existing use value, and then sell after planning permission, with the value uplift used to fund infrastructure.

  5. The democratic deficit must be tackled, with the full involvement of local communities alongside key stakeholders. The current public opinion of the planning system remains low. Planning debates need a wider audience through greater creativity, using lessons learnt from recent neighbourhood planning. This requires skills, time commitment and resources, not just for those communities who already “have” or “can”, but for those with neither who still “need”.

    Proactive mediation can help tackle the inevitable conflicts between different viewpoints. Communities must be engaged in their places of social interaction and planning has to convince them that it can bring about acceptable change to their collective benefit. Vital elements are those of evidence, knowledge of practices, evaluation of past policies and their impacts and alternative opportunities.

The political parties: manifestos

Conservatives

The main points are as follows.

  • A £1 billion brownfield regeneration pledge to unblock housing construction.

  • Local people to have the final say on wind farm applications.

  • Ensure local people have more control over planning.

  • Protect the green belt.

  • Support locally-led garden cities and towns in places where communities want them.

Labour

The main points are as follows.

  • A new generation of garden cities.

  • Local authorities to give first call to first time buyers of new houses in areas of housing. growth.

  • Local authorities to require certain types of shop clusters to apply for planning permission (e.g. payday lenders).

  • Use it or lose it powers to encourage developers to build.

Liberal Democrats

The main points are as follows.

  • End permitted development rights for converting offices to residences.

  • Strengthen the duty to cooperate for local authorities.

  • Local authorities must plan 15 years of housing need.

  • Create 10 new garden cities where they are locally supported.

  • Community right of appeal where planning decisions contradict approved or emerging local plans.

UKIP

The main points are as follows.

  • Replace the NPPF with prioritised brownfield sites.

  • Protect the green belt.

  • Free local authorities from government imposed housing numbers.

  • Local referendums of at least 5% of the electorate to overturn large scale developments.

Green Party

The main points are as follows.

  • Scrap the NPPF and the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

  • Put planning back in the hands of local people and government.

  • Local authorities to map ecological networks and collaborate to develop national spatial plans.

  • Applicants only able to appeal following an error in the planning process.

  • A community right of appeal where development is non-compliant with a neighbourhood or local plan.

Conclusion

There is much to reconsider following five years of unprecedented change to the planning system. The Bartlett planning school seeks to rebuild planning which has become more ambiguous through insufficient detail to guide local authority plan-making and development decisions and absent strategic and democratic dimensions.

The political parties are all proposing further planning changes, with an emphasis on local community controls, garden cities/towns, brownfield regeneration, greenbelts and more regulation.

According to the Town & Country Planning Association, the planning system has been undermined and devalued. Its progressive social values have gone and the system is at risk of destruction, unless restored to prominence as the most effective way of creating needed homes, communities and infrastructure, including green infrastructure, set against climate change and biodiversity. The 8 May date is an important day for the planning system.