Planning for the future and understanding the past

By David Armiger | 21 August 2020

It is clear that the planning system we have in this country is not working effectively and not delivering for anyone including councils, local communities, developers, businesses and homeowners amongst others.

However, it is worth reminding ourselves that the system we have is the invention of central government and it is fundamentally their system which local government tries its best to implement at a local level.

Successive governments have promised radical reform to the planning system, by which they generally mean they are going to deliver academic or unproven processes which local government will need to find a way to implement at a local level, often to the great joy of the legal profession, so please excuse my initial scepticism.

There are clearly significant issues with the planning system as it current exists. The development management process can be complex and opaque and whilst there is a perception that members have a significant input to decisions through planning committee the reality is that they are very much constrained in what they can do. Local plans take far too long to produce and this means that not only do circumstances change, but they can also fall victim to electoral cycles.

So having accepted the imperative for change, how can it be most effectively delivered ? As with any change process there needs to be an understanding of a number of key issues, such as what is wrong at present and what do you want to achieve through the change.

If we take the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act as a good a place to start as any, this Act aimed to bring together weak and fragmented regulation over development into a national system and in great part arose as a result of the large scale reconstruction required following the second world war.

The issues it aimed to address included the inability of the state to deal with industrial dereliction, chronic housing conditions as well as the impact of unregulated sprawl. Given the wartime experience there was a general consensus that the state had a key role to play in delivering change, a consensus that gave rise to both the planning system and the NHS.

Whilst some of the tools included with the 1947 Act such as the provision of a land tax through a development charge did not survive for long, the effective nationalisation of development rights to a local level remains in large part to this day.

It is clear however, that despite successive reviews and reforms the system is still struggling to find a way to ensure the delivery of the scale and quality of new development required, along with ensuring that areas of dereliction are effectively regenerated.

So whilst change is required, don’t we first need to be open about the current problems? How for example do these proposals ensure that development can be guided to areas of need and not to areas that can generate the highest returns? 

Many of the ideas put forward by Government are in reality, minor tweaks to the system, although as we have found in the past even tweaks can cause authorities to restart well advanced processes without very clear transitional arrangements. There are also a number of reassurances within the proposals about how high quality schemes will be permitted, but that in itself requires someone (a planner maybe ?) to determine what is high quality within the local context.

As has been identified by many commentators, the supply of new housing is not constrained by permissions, it is held back by build rates. If this is as a result of concerns about viability or other financial constraints the planning system itself cannot currently do a great deal about that. In such circumstances a truly radical solution to get things moving through the planning system would be Right to Build which in essence would be a requirement to put unimplemented permissions back to the market after a specific time and let someone else deliver the scheme. This would also be a way to encourage new entrant innovators to the market and promote enterprise and innovation. Just a thought, and other ideas are out there and they need to be fully aired and considered to ensure a national consensus.

As with any reform, such a process is not for the faint hearted and should not be seen as an easy way to gain popular support. It is a brave politician who puts their name to radical change and runs the risk of having that name associated with unpopular developments for posterity

David Armiger is assistant chief executive of Bassetlaw DC

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