A crisis of place - Are we delivering sustainable development through local plans?

The local planning system in England has a profound impact on all our lives – from the availability of homes to the approval of energy systems; from dealing with flood risk and facilitating low-carbon energy to the providing conditions that support the health and well-being of individuals. All of this action is embedded in a local democratic system which provides the opportunity for real community control.

But there is widespread concern about the perceived weakness of local planning, felt by communities, politicians and NGOs alike. This report looks at existing research and surveys to consider whether Local Plans are actually delivering the objectives of sustainable development. The core message of this report is that the planning system is failing to deliver to its potential, and has in fact abandoned many vital sustainable development outcomes and the wider endeavour of place-making in favour of an overwhelming focus on the allocation of housing units. The report finds little evidence of attempts to secure a logical and coherent approach to positive place-making and to sustainable development issues such as climate change. 

The result is that while the challenges of sustainability and those stemming from both demographic and climate change have increased, the tools to deal with them through planning have been progressively marginalised. Solving this problem will not be easy, but any attempt to do so must start with a formal restatement that sustainable development remains the core objective for Local Plans, together with publication of a clearer definition of sustainable development in planning law and policy. It also requires a complete culture change in government, to acknowledge the value of democratic planning in dealing with some of society’s most complex and important public policy questions.

Download the report here.

Recommendation 1: Giving the planning system a purpose

The Government should create a holistic statutory purpose for the planning system. The forthcoming Housing and Planning White Paper provides an opportunity to address this need.

Recommendation 2: Making changes to national planning policy

A refocusing of the planning system on the achievement of sustainable development and sustainable outcomes will require changes to national policy contained in the NPPF (see full report for detail).

Recommendation 3: Restoring planning powers to local government

The Government should reverse the central deregulation of permitted development, housing standards and energy sources to give local authorities discretion to reflect local circumstances. The Government should remove local discretion only when there is an issue of overwhelming public interest, supported by clear evidence. Issues of national importance should be clearly expressed in a national spatial framework to support local plan-making.

Recommendation 4: Providing support for the planning service

The Government should consider expanding the role of the Committee on Climate Change to advise local government directly on carbon dioxide emissions reduction. The Government should reinstate the Sustainable Development Commission, with a renewed remit that includes support for local delivery.

Recommendation 5: Rebuilding planning practice

The planning service fulfils a core function in the public interest: the Government should set minimum service requirements from local government and where necessary consider funding those requirements.

Recommendation 6: Remaking the planning system

The Government should set up a Royal Commission with wideranging terms of reference to explore whether the scope, structures, policy and governance of the planning system in England promote the long-term sustainable development of the nation.

Recommendation 7: Making it happen – a new coalition for democratic planning

A new cross-sector coalition is required to advocate the benefits of planning based on the principles of sustainable development.