Blog: 18 June 2020A Radical Reform of the Planning System – it misses the point!

Robin Shepherd

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Robin Shepherd


Southampton office

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In the last week or so, we have seen much ‘excitement’ in the press over our Secretary of State’s views on the need for ‘radical planning reform’. The cynic in me, may argue that each time a government looks to simplify and focus the system, it just becomes more complicated. That aside, much of the attention is once again on the tools that are used – and who uses them. But surely something much more basic is needed to allow the system to be effective: solving the disconnect between planning and the communities it is meant to serve. 

Policy Exchange’s new report, ‘Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century’, which has driven much of this excitement, highlights some of the flaws in the system - the lack of vision in planning; the focus on meeting needs as opposed to creating a future; disengagement in the process; the extent of political influence etc; and some interesting ideas, such as the need for shorter, more focussed Local Plans; the need for a national and regional plans; the need for a simpler, more predictable, dynamic system that can be responsive to change.

I’m pretty sure few within the industry would dispute many of these suggestions, but is it that the tools are wrong, or that people just don’t trust those who are using them? So it doesn’t really matter what tools or methods are used. Decision-makers have become risk averse in the face of the noisy minority and political influence, making it is easier to say no! It’s become more acceptable to plan for less, rather than more - to take the easier less ambitious route. Politicians are often elected on anti-development platforms as disengaged communities call for a stop to change, believing that the system can not address the problems they experience. Instead of welcoming the positive opportunities development could provide everyone with, our current system and approach delivers a nation of objectors seeking to minimise harm, not maximise benefit and opportunity.

The Policy Exchange essays recognise the unique nature of the planning system which essentially seeks to restrict the production of free-market commodities. What other production process involves someone else deciding how much to produce, what it should look like, where it should be produced and who should own or use it? Particularly where that other party has a very different (and often personal) motivation and agenda?

Where the Policy Exchange recommendations fall short in my view, is in highlighting that we need to better understand what is needed in the first place. Questions such as: What society do we want to live in/leave to our children? What are the national priorities we want to address and change? What role do we want our towns, cities and countryside to provide? I personally believe that yes, the current planning system is too bureaucratic, but it is not that we have the wrong tools – we just need to be asking what we want the planning system to deliver. 

As part of the Localis submission to Government (Building for Renewal) on this issue, myself and Iain Painting firmly argue that we need a national conversation to answer these big questions - which would be set into a national plan - requiring (by law) Councils to apply agreed objectives to their area and deliver on them through cross-boundary strategic plans, Local Plans and Community Plans. The way we plan for our future can then adapt around what it needs to deliver. 

Only then can the planning system have any chance of delivering what is wanted and needed at the local level. Only then can the development industry respond effectively with certainty. Only then can the planning system be adapted, even re-written, to allow for positive engagement, transparency and trust - and deliver on what we aspire to. Only then will society effectively engage in being actively involved in co-creating the society we all want - using the planning system to enable and deliver that change.

But What role then for Councils? Simply “decision-makers”?  Maybe “enablers” of change? 

I would argue that is not enough. Councils need to be far more proactive in engaging with their communities – reaching out to them to understand how the priorities in the national plan should be delivered locally; to understand how local issues can be resolved in the process. Councils must then be co-deliverers through the planning and development process. They cannot rely on the development industry alone but must instead support communities far more actively in delivering their objectives. They must use their unique borrowing capabilities, combined with their local knowledge and political influence, to fill the gaps of community infrastructure, channel investment, build high quality homes, parks and spaces, unlock development through infrastructure investment partnerships with developers; and secure a financial return in the process to fuel future investment. 

I appreciate that all of this will require funding for Councils, but first it takes the will to do it. Until then, discussions over whether land-use zoning or development corporations will help, but is only moving the problem and is simply missing the point.


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