How to fix the planning provisions of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday 8 June, is dominated by planning reform measures. For the TCPA, therefore, this means that whether the Bill sinks or swims depends on if the proposed planning reforms rebuild public trust and create a system that is fit to deal with challenges of climate, health and the housing and cost-of-living crises.  But, the changes to planning law in this Bill will not give us the democratic and efficient planning system which the TCPA set out in the Raynsford Review.   

The Bill is a mixed bag of measures; some of which we can support, such as strengthening the status of the development plan, and some of which we believe will be extremely damaging for local democracy. Since the Bill is already making its way through Parliament, the question is not how do we get an ideal system but how can the Bill be improved?

The TCPA believes five things must change if the Bill is to form the basis of an acceptable planning framework.  This requires two new Clauses and three significant changes to the existing draft:

The new Clauses

  1. Introducing a statutory purpose for planning after Clause 82.   So far, the Government has resisted strong calls to establish a clear development goal for English planning which focuses decisions on securing people’s health and well-being and the United Nations Sustainable Development goals.  Existing legal and policy requirements on sustainable development are exceptionally weak. The new duty being produced in collaboration with the Better Planning Coalition would put people’s health and the health of the planet at the heart of all planning decisions.
  2. The introduction of a stronger duty that ensures the planning system fully implements the provisions and objectives of the Climate Change Act 2008 and specifically the Sixth Carbon Budget. It would include a new duty to secure the long-term flood resilience of communities.    

Changes to existing Clauses

  1. Major changes are required to restore the right of communities to be heard in plan making. Clauses 82 to 84 and Schedule 7 of the Bill set out a series of new documents that all have development plan status in law. Only one of these documents, the slimmed down local plan, preserves the right to be heard at an examination in public. This locks the community out of the key decision-making arenas on design codes and on the voluntary Spatial Development Strategies which can determine green belt allocations. The rights which applied to the local plan must also apply to all these other new plans.  The blog you can find here sets out how the Bill reduces community rights and how it can be fixed.
  2. The Bill introduces very significant new powers for the Secretary of State to set national development management policy on a wide range of issues. These could include green belt, heritage assets but also any other aspect of current local plan policy which the Secretary of State decides should be decided nationally. The legislation goes on to make clear that this national policy has precedence over the local plan. These provisions must be modified to preserve the primacy of the local plan and to limit the power of the Secretary of State. If national policy is to have a new legal status it must be subject to a formal process of public participation and parliamentary scrutiny in same way as National Policy Statements for major infrastructure.
  3. While there is now overwhelming evidence about its benefits, the Bill does not support any form of coherent and democratic strategic planning in England. This is now left partly to devolution deals and partly to voluntary collaboration. The abolition of the duty to cooperate and its replacement with a much weaker policy requirement will make a difficult situation even worse. At the very least the duty to cooperate should continue to apply to those local authorities who do not enter into a joint Strategic Development Strategy.

Addressing these five issues would support the Government’s stated objectives on issues such as net zero and rebuilding public trust in planning. Failure to address them, particularly in relation to public participation, will result in a divisive parliamentary process and an even more centralised planning system.  The TCPA is working through the Better Planning Coalition to bring forward joint amendments on the purpose for planning and climate change.  We are supporting the Coalition’s wider calls around health, affordable housing, sustainable transport and nature recovery.  As the Bill moves quickly into its Committee Stage, it is vital the Government shows that it is willing to listen to cross-sector concerns about the direction of this vitally important legislation.

About the author: Dr Hugh Ellis is the TCPA’s Director of Policy.

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