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Planning White Paper: time for certainty with purpose

As the consultation on the Government’s proposed reforms to the planning system closes, Chief Executive, Dave Trimingham shares reflections on aspects of what’s proposed and what’s missing.

I have worked through several major reforms of our planning system. All had the aim of making things simpler and quicker. Experience has taught me that the process of reform is rarely simple and never quick.

When the Government announced radical reforms to build a new system ‘from the ground up’ I had mixed feelings. Mixed because on the one hand I would be the last to say the current system cannot be improved; but on the other hand the one thing good long term planning craves is certainty – especially in current circumstances. And proposals for reform can easily lead to the opposite.

Having thought about the White Paper long and hard it was a pleasure to submit Turley’s contribution to the thinking and discussion. We aim to bring constructive critique based on our collective experience of engaging with the planning system in all parts of the country.

In reviewing our submission a few thoughts have resonated with me and I thought I would share them.

What are we planning for?

In proposing reform, especially if complete overhaul is proposed, it is vital to keep the purpose (of both the system and its reform) in laser focus. A faster, simpler system is a means to an end. We must not lose sight of what that end is.

There are national strategies for housing, the economy and infrastructure – but not yet a synthesis of what these tell us about the sort of country we want to plan for. In my view, there is a “gap” in the system for a national spatial framework that unites these policy areas. If this work was done the implications of investment in initiatives such as HS2; the Oxford Cambridge Arc; Midlands Engine; and Northern Powerhouse could find clear spatial expression and be tested against the objective of levelling up. An overarching framework could assess where improved transport connectivity or rapid economic growth signal a need for more homes and could provide a steer to combined and local authorities about their role and contribution in the national context.

Is it all about housing?

Much of the recent attention in the planning system has focussed on addressing the housing crisis. And rightly so – we need to find ways to build more and better homes at a much faster pace. But any new system must be equally adept at supporting economic growth, reimagining town centres and adapting to rapidly changing demands of logistics and e-commerce.

Much less is said about these and I hope further details of dynamic and speedy planning responses to these challenges will soon emerge.

Zoning out….

After much speculation about zoning, the White Paper proposes that land is identified in one of three categories – “growth”, “renewal” and “protection”. At their heart these proposals are about accelerating the approval process for “compliant” development in areas designated for growth and renewal. I would expect this to relate to a relatively small - though vitally important - proportion of proposals. The approach and process elsewhere would remain unchanged. Does this necessitate a new system from the ground up?

If I understand what is proposed correctly, “protection” would be a new label for the conflation of a myriad of protected designations each of which currently have well-understood policies attached to them. I see no proposals to re-write or alter these policies. As proposed, “protection” would be applied to the vast majority of the country but I can’t see how this would affect the process by which proposals are considered or the policy tests that would apply.  I worry that extra “protection” risks creating a false impression that this amounts to a de facto presumption against development.

Don’t hit pause!

Finally, and returning to my mixed feelings, the transition to any new system is key. Those who get involved in planning and some who practice it tend to be cautious. Even the prospect of change can prompt fingers to hover over the pause button. There is evidence of plan timetables slipping even in response to the White Paper’s high level proposals.

At a time when social and economic recovery are desperately needed we can ill afford to slow down.  However quickly reforms are in place it is the current system we will rely on as we rebuild after the effects of the pandemic. Transition to a new system must be silky smooth and not come at the cost of disinvestment in current plan-making and delivery.

2 November 2020