English Planning - how did we get here and where are we going?

8 Nov 2018

Policy area: Planning

Our Policy Officer, Sam Bensted, blogs to celebrate World Town Planning Day

Today marks World Town Planning Day and here at the BPF we thought we would use the opportunity to take stock of some of the more significant changes to the English planning system in recent years and try to flesh out where we are going for the future.

The government’s recent reforms through their now revised National Planning Policy Framework certainly represents a clear shift away from the priorities of the original 2012 framework. During the coalition years, rhetoric and policy was much more heavily focused on localism, economic growth and sustainable development – all arguably direct consequences of the 2008 recession. Six years on, the priority now for government is markedly different. With the outcome of the snap General Election in 2017 focusing Conservative minds, the emphasis, at least rhetorically, for Theresa May’s government is clear - supporting more new homes to be delivered more quickly.

To meet this increased emphasis on housing delivery, the government has a number of new key policy levers, including their new nationally applicable standardised methodology for assessing housing need. In the arsenal, MHCLG also now has a stick with which to beat local authorities in the form of their new Housing Delivery Test which will (in time) compel underperforming areas to build more. Such an approach has been sustained in recent times with a latest MHCLG consultation that proposes government ignores more up to date household projections which crucially predict a lower household formation rate and instead press ahead with using the higher 2014 figures as the underpinning of the government’s new standardised method. Their justification is twofold – the unacceptable disruption the change would have on around 150 local authorities’ plan making process and to their mind the clear need for public policy to support a level of housing delivery that exceeds projections so historic issues of undersupply and affordability can be tackled. 

It’s also worth taking into account the impact of the devolution agenda which has been steadily gathering pace. The 2017 Mayoral Elections was a pivotal moment, with six new metro mayors across the English regions assuming office. Before the horrors of the 2017 General Election, few will remember that the Conservatives performed strongly in these locals winning four out of the six mayoralties. These better than expected results arguably helped refocus national government’s mind on the devolution agenda, coupled undoubtedly with ferocious lobbying from the new mayors themselves for new tools to effect change. And there have been some developments to date – government’s recent response to the Developer Contributions consultation confirms their plans to enable these new combined authorities to deploy a strategic infrastructure tariff (along the Mayoral CIL model which has been funding Crossrail). More broadly, the momentum behind the devolution agenda with the various sub regional plans that are in progress across the country poses a further interesting question – are we returning to the days of strategic planning? On the most recent evidence, the answer is most definitely yes.

If anyone were in any doubt about the government’s intentions, we only have to look at their approach to the emergence of the various government agencies involved in housing delivery and planning policy. Indeed, the National Infrastructure Commission, established in October 2015, which has in part been tasked with maximising the growth potential of the Oxford - Cambridge Corridor and the launch of Homes England earlier this year to drive the government’s focus on delivery being two examples. A key challenge for these new structures is how they align together more effectively. We believe that future emphasis should be on greater horizontal alignment between government and the various agencies, so infrastructure and housing can be planned in a more coordinated way.

So it is clear that changes are afoot for English planning, however this will be a medium to long term process rather than an snap event. With the revised NPPF now in place, MHCLG have turned their immediate attention to how planning reform can better support our highstreets through a fresh government consultation released at the Budget 2018. More long term, further reform could flow from the recommendations of Sir Oliver Letwin’s Final Report into Build Out Rates to which government plan to respond in February.

In short, planners who had been hoping for some respite from the endless planning reform can instead expect further changes to the system as we move into the new year.