Why less regulation won’t mean less planning

11 Aug 2020

Policy area: Planning

When the prime minister announced on 30 June that he was going to bring forward the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War, it now seems clear he meant it.

The reforms are ambitious. The vision of a simplified, tech-enabled system that delivers on all fronts – empowered communities, but also empowered faster development, more homes with the right infrastructure while protecting green spaces, and delivering environmental goals and higher quality and design standards – is surely to be applauded by all. 

So, promises of profound change have been delivered. But over the next few months of consultation, two questions will be at the forefront of many people’s minds: how and who?

Plan, plan, plan

Less regulation won’t mean less planning. In fact, for these reforms to work we’re going to need more and better planning. Every local authority is going to have to plan, plan, plan – to provide the required leadership and context for investors, developers and their communities. 

We shouldn’t underestimate the size of the challenge – only 50% of local authorities currently have an up-to-date local plan. But the proposed requirement to meet a statutory timetable of no more than 30 months in total is extremely welcome and of itself should mean that some of the costs and delays in the current system fall away. 

Beyond this, many of the proposals in the planning paper are deceptively simple, and the route to delivery will be fraught with complexity and littered with the hazards of unintended consequences. And how we deliver property’s contribution to the UK’s net zero carbon commitment remains opaque – although it’s essential this is embedded into every element of the planning system and backed with the necessary incentives and funding. 

As ever, the BPF’s focus will be to identify all of the issues and support members to navigate the conversations ahead with national and local government in a spirit of partnership and a shared ambition to better serve local communities across the whole country. 

A new CIL-ver lining 

Developer contributions is one such area. It’s laudable that the government is finally ready to solve the recurring issues around CIL and S106, and instinctively a new, simpler national levy seems like a bold but positive move. However, questions persist on how to address the vast volume of contributions collected that remain in local authority accounts unspent, or indeed spent on something unrelated to the development or local infrastructure, given the dire financial straits local authorities find themselves in. 

Equally, a one-size-fits-all approach to contributions is likely to prove disastrous, with land values and development viability varying so significantly across the country. 

Teach first to plan first 

One of the contradictions in government policy since 2010 is that spending on the planning system has been cut by 55% – the greatest fall across all council activities. Meanwhile, housing targets over the same period have increased by 50% to 300,000. This gap must be closed. 

For too long, government hasn’t been putting enough investment into the skills and expertise of local planners. It is right that they have addressed this by proposing a comprehensive skills strategy for the planning sector. 

I urge the government to back up their rhetoric. Planners play a fundamental role in our country’s social and economic wellbeing – like, for example, teachers. If ministers are serious about the ambitions they’ve set out for this systemic overhaul, just as people are incentivised with financial support to start a career in teaching, with a variety of programmes and access points into the sector, the same scale of investment and structure should be made available to planners. 

The education sector’s Teach First programme could be imitated to establish a Plan First. 

Statement of intent

The BPF has long called for simplicity to local plans, that adoption of a local plan (and the need to update it often) should be mandatory, and that local planning authorities need to be better resourced to drive this forward. 

This White Paper signals serious intent to provide these changes – although it’s disappointing to see little mention of commercial property. New communities must be supported by vibrant high streets, workplaces to inspire innovation and enhance productivity, logistics, and great places where we want to spend our time with family and friends. 

There is plenty of work it seems for us to be getting on with over the next few months. We must ensure government can identify the route to beneficial change and navigate a new way forward for planning that ensures more of the public funding and private sector investment that is needed goes into delivering sustainable, thriving and healthy communities across the country – rather than into bureaucracy and red tape.  

Melanie Leech, Chief Executive, BPF