03 Jul 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson argues for a radical shake-up to the planning system to deliver on his “build build build” mantra. This forms part of strong political narrative that England's planning system is broken and needs radical change.

However, such thinking is not new.  David Cameron in 2011 attacked planners and environmental regulators as the enemy of enterprise and similarly embarked on a package of reforms to speed up housing delivery and economic growth and cut red tape. We saw the “pickling” of regional and strategic planning; the birth of a new National Planning Policy Framework reducing 1000s of pages of planning  guidance to just 60 pages and wave after wave of planning legislation designed to speed up planning and deliver more housing.  

Yet apparently the system still remains broken.  Political change has been a constant in England's planning system. Since the landmark 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, some 360 pieces of planning legislation have been passed. Managing all this change is made more difficult with significant cuts to planning departments under austerity, compounded by incremental legislative changes that create the very complexity and delays that the government now complains about. Furthermore, since 1997 there have been 18 housing ministers which is probably a government  department record which seriously hinders policy consistency.  

Yet throughout much recent time consistently over 80% of planning applications are approved. This   challenges any simplistic presumptions that planning somehow inhibits growth.   

Today, calls for reform have been fuelled by a report by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange -rethinking the planning system for the21st-century.  Based on the need for more housebuilding , the argument goes that replacing our plan-led system that assesses every application with a zoning system would reduce bureaucracy and help speed up decision-making. It provides certainty.  To me that is problematic in that surely the zoning plans would then become the focus of legal challenge and delay.

Indeed, we have already moved forward towards more zoning in the current system. For example, we have enterprise zones, green belt and Brownfield permission in principle which all perform zoning roles. There are also more recent reforms such as extensions to permitted development  which enable people to bypass planning permission and have been used by government to fast-track more commercial to residential developments and housing extensions to fuel housing growth. Boris Johnson has just announced further loosening of the rules on converting  other commercial establishments, shops and redundant premises into homes in his build build build speech.

But such changes have been heavily criticised as they lead to poor quality  houses and flats with no windows, often isolated from key services and infrastructure, that would never have been given planning approval and which also conflict with other policy considerations, such as those of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission. Other research undertaken by Ben Clifford has exposed the problems that this causes for wider strategic planning functions.

So for me there is something rather worrying about the continual use of planning and planners as scapegoats for failed delivery of housing. Planning represents just one step in the development pipeline where infrastructure, utilities and other permits and regulations apply together with issues of land value costs and supply chains. Yet these are rarely examined, Furthermore,  "Build build build" is the wrong starting point for any discussion about the future way forward for planning.  Planning is currently dominated by a target of building 300,000 homes each year and the prime minister's rhetoric reinforces that narrative. But one simple quantity metric on housing is dangerous and limiting when planning encompasses so much more.

The planning system should instead be designed to address the long-term challenges and opportunities our society faces. And that means a more integrated quality place-based approach based on a shared vision of the kind of places we want to live in.  Crucially, these challenges are all linked and in our disintegrated governance frameworks this is rarely recognised or actioned.  

  1. There is a housing challenge. Plenty of houses are being built but not enough affordable family homes and social housing to meet need. The key national priorities do not match the types of housing now being built and wanted by developers.
  2. There is a climate challenge. We are not doing anything like enough to meet the 1.5℃ Paris target and the UK is at risk of falling behind its own watered down targets so says the Climate Change committee. The planning system needs to have strong policies that help the transition to a greener lower carbon future with higher priority given to retrofitting of existing housing stock.
  3. There is a biodiversity challenge. The state of UK nature has declined year on year with many species on the brink of extinction and habitat decline. Biodiversity provides key ecosystem services which we depend on for basic necessities, security and health. This diversity makes us more resilient to change and uncertainty in much the same way as investing in a range of stocks within a financial portfolio.
  4. There is a health challenge, caused by poor housing, noise and air pollution, together with a lack of access to quality green space and key services such as jobs, schools, doctors and hospitals. All this affects both physical and mental health.
  5. There is a poverty and social justice challenge where the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. Planning was founded on social justice considerations to address the slums of Victorian Britain but seems too have dropped right off the policy agenda at present. Here child poverty is a major issue.
  6. There is a public engagement challenge. Ordinary people should be able to understand and engage with planning more effectively and help co-produce the kinds of sustainable places they want. The current system is too complex and too adversarial. A key opportunity is for the public to be more involved in planning processes based on modern interactive "e-planning”; instead we are often faced with a stack of PDF files to plough through, set within a heavily jargon filled documents.     

So these challenges are all interlinked and collectively should form the key principles on which a better and more joined-up vision of planning can be built. We urgently need better diagnoses of these challenges so as to develop more integrated and holistic interventions. These should then shape the  governance and delivery frameworks. So for example we have Local Enterprise Partnerships that focus on growth and economy; Local Nature Partnerships that focus on nature and environment.  Yet to me nature is an asset that helps secure economic growth and jobs but  this linkage is fragmented by these governance frameworks based on different geographies, remits with no body taking a coordinated role. Here strategic planning fails too. This is built on housing need and jobs alone. Plans rarely cooperate across catchments on matters of flood management or across networks of green infrastructure. Yet the failure to cooperate on such matters are partly responsible for bad planning decisions.  If you plan and build houses first and then bolt on the other matters like nature and community services  you will cause problems of policy disintegration.

Never have we needed a return to visionary thinking that planning gurus such as Ebenezer Howard (Garden Cities) and Peter Hall (Sociable Cities) were famous for.  I fear we have lost the visionary aspect of planning in the built environment professions.   It as if all the attacks and reforms on planning has castrated the planning profession from being bold and radical reducing them to agencies of government that simply deliver what is acceptable and often cant do that due to relaxing of red tape.   

I fear that the government will continue on its present trajectory, based on the populist but fallacious presumption that planning is restricting housebuilding, and impose yet more change on a public sector ill-equipped to deal with it. In effect, the country lurches inexorably from one crisis to another; that is definitely not good planning.


All comments are greatly appreciated - please help mainstream green infrastructure by adding to the conversation.