Planning Reform (of sorts?)

by Richard Anderson

Planning for the Future,” “Tackling the Undersupply of Housing,” “The Government’s Levelling Up Agenda,” “Calculating Housing Need in the Planning System (England),” “Green Belts,” these are some of the independent research briefing papers produced by The (fantastic) House of Commons research team over the past 3 months and deposited in the House of Commons Library.

So much reading, so much to comprehend, so much to consider, so much to unravel, so what?!

Well, as one of many planning professionals practicing across England the so much/so what/so many reports are amplified, respected, and partisan matters being issued for public (but more so political) consideration.  Herein lies the as yet (officially) unanswered question – “When will the Government finalise and issue its new approach to planning and a revised/new planning system?”

First issued back in August 2020, the “Planning for the Future” White Paper suggested, explored, and considered how a new planning system could be brought into effect.  On 1 March 2022 (1 year and 7 months later) and the profession, the public, the planning authorities are still waiting for a “White Paper” being translated into legislation and eventual practice.

Having worked in Central Government (MoJ) I became aware/began to understand political imperatives translating (or not) into public reality.  What was recognised when issuing this White Paper was that:

  • Planning is a sensitive matter
  • The Government had/still have an overwhelming political majority
  • In order to ensure mantras such as “Build, Build, Build” are delivered in practical reality, at least some tinkering but then pretty much wholescale reform of various mechanisms (including the Planning System) would be required
  • A “Green Paper” (a consultative document not issuing the Government’s statement of intent) was not issued.  This would delay the passing of legislation and on the ground implementation
  • But to temper this and not appear as if 99% of the White Paper was correct, an actual draft version of the new Planning Bill was not attached to it, and therefore it was not turned into a “Command Paper”

Since August 2020 the Government have, regardless, began to tinker with the planning system, an extract from the contents page of 11 February 2022 “Planning for Future …” summarises this nicely ..

So, what has happened, why the delay?! 

Quite simply, politically, what the White Paper wished to deliver in practice could not be stomached, regardless of a huge parliamentary majority, which with pretty much any other matter up for political debate should be rammed through parliamentary channels and processes. 

A fundamental matter of concern was that firstly how housing numbers (which each planning authority across the country must deliver) were calculated, and secondly where perceived majorities of these homes would be granted planning permission, built out and occupied by highly demanded new residents – namely the South East which is a largely Conservative safe part of the Country.

Also, what has happened is the sacking of the then Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary of State (Robert Jenrick MP) and, in September 2021 that department being rebranded as The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with a new Secretary of State, Michael Gove MP.  Whilst some of you may not see this as instrumental or important, I believe so for the following reasons:

  • The Government are committed to reforming the planning system in one way shape or form –  this is the department which will do this
  • The introduction of the “Levelling Up” agenda to planning/housing/development matters seems to imply a balancing when it comes to this department’s subject area, including the how and where for housing
  • The Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday 26 February 2022, that in a private meeting with 45 Conservative MPs Mr Gove stated” that he had decided not to proceed with a major separate piece of planning legislation to put the reforms into law. Instead, more limited changes to planning rules will be incorporated as part of a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which will be set out in the Queen’s Speech in the Spring.”
  • The paper also reported that Mr Gove informed the meeting that “growth zones” which would be granted relief from many planning restrictions are now “definitely not going to happen”.
  • The paper quoted a source stating that this to be a “partial retreat” alongside many of the White Paper proposals had already been “watered down”.

If this article (and in political parlance another screeching U-turn occurs) and the source quoted within it is correct, then it will be back to the position before and indeed since August 2020, namely tinkering with the existing system.  It appears also that the “Levelling Up” agenda will be used to take a hostage of sorts of what is a planning matter.  Disguise, hostage, cover – this could be what the planning system will be in the short-term.  Whilst some results may yield positive impacts, many commentators argue that if the Government is to begin to see delivery of an adequate (and signed-up-to) number of new homes, the fast-tracking of brownfield sites and an equitable distribution of development the “short, sharp, shock” approach to planning which the White Paper extoled will not be realised.

“Build, Build, Build,” Report (after), Report (after), Report, please let us Plan, Plan, Plan!

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