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Planning for the future: Achieving the vision

Paul Willmott, Managing Director of our UK Planning business, takes a look at the vision set out in the recently published White Paper Planning for the Future, and what will need to be delivered to achieve it.

13 August 2020 | 5 min read
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The Government’s White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ was published for Consultation on the 6th August 2020, and, as expected, has attracted debate. We were promised a fundamental shift in a system that has remained largely unchanged since it was established; a system that would be better suited to the needs of the modern day (as set out by The Policy Exchange in its January 2020 Blueprint report entitled 'Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century').

And on the face of it the White Paper certainly appears radical. It would be the biggest shake up in the planning system for decades. But will it achieve the five key proposals, and the three pillars for change, and are these really a surprise?

The vision

Ultimately, all users of the planning system share the same common requirement. They want and deserve a system that provides certainty and value whilst being easy to understand and use, efficient, fair and transparent. And in broad terms, the vision that is set out is to achieve just that.

The eminent Christopher Katkowski QC, one of the most respected Planning Silks, and a member of the Government’s Task Force, has described the overall vision as being: “….. to create an efficient, inclusive and accessible planning system in which everyone can contribute to making the area in which they live somewhere that they can have pride in; where no-one is excluded and where everyone can understand what's going on and play a worthwhile part in getting things right.”

How

The whole vision hinges on a new local plans framework. This framework would set ‘rules’ and standards for development. It proposes that: land should be zoned into two or three new planning categories; sites allocated in the plan would benefit from outline approval; and that local plans should be assessed against a statutory ‘sustainable development test’, with the duty to cooperate and five-year land supply assessment cut.

So what does this mean in real terms? And how will the growth requirements be coordinated across authorities? Especially in parts of the country set to benefit from investment in major infrastructure, such as in the Northern Powerhouse, HS2 and the Oxford/Cambridge Arc? We have already seen the dissolution of Regional Government, so will the role of the Mayor’s change, or will we see some other agency be established? Probably not.

What’s clear is that central Government will have a greater say in local planning, and this will include setting national Development Management policies, with no provision for generic or localised policies which repeat or adapt that national policy. As a result local plans will have a clearer focus and their policies should be more succinct; which in turn should bring further clarity.

Is it achievable?

To achieve the aims set out, investment is going to be key. The planning system must be efficient, it must be proactive, and it must be forward thinking. It should be about partnerships, not the drawing of battle lines, and decision makers at every level will have to have a proper understanding of their role and responsibilities under legislation. 

The public sector needs significant investment; not just financial but also in technology and people. Currently technology has the ability to deliver the vision for how the new local plans should operate. However, few authorities have managed to invest to the degree that will be necessary to deliver it and all will require assistance to establish and maintain the platforms necessary to meet expectations.

The British Property Foundation (BPF) points out that in real terms funding for planning departments has been cut by 55% since 2010directly as a result of central Government policywhile housing targets (set by central Government) have risen by 50% over the same period. Without a substantial increase in resourcing the BPF appear doubtful that the reforms will deliver the changes to which they aspire, and we agree.

This is not going to be solved in the next year or two. It needs long-term investment in the courses and places available in our universities, and these courses must qualify for the profession’s needs, not just to an academic standard.

Recognition is also needed for those engaged in the planning process. The role of Chief Planning Officer has all but gone, but the need for that level of professional expertise has not. If ‘build, build, build’ is the by-line, and development a priority, then Government needs not just to look at the planning system itself, but to also delve into every facet of what makes that process work.

“Planning for the Future” makes big promises. Few should argue that our planning system does not need reform. But the detail, which will follow in the months ahead, is likely to be more complex than we can imagine at this stage (and potentially contradictory too). We are delving into it and preparing our representations to make sure that we can influence an exemplar system fit for purpose.

However, one thing is clear, we should all support the drive to move planning into the 21st Century. The past six months have demonstrated what can be achieved by embracing technology. Through virtual public consultations, online engagement and town hall meetings, to virtual planning meetings and committees, we have taken a big leap forward. We can’t turn back now.