Planning – an essential part of the solution 

Fiona Howie, Chief Executive, TCPA

And so, we finally have a date for the next General Election. While many of us were expecting to have to wait until November, we will be casting our votes in just six weeks’ time. 

Supporters of the work of the Association will be unsurprised by the overarching policy priorities the TCPA’s manifesto for the next Government sets out. The document, published in January, highlights net zero and climate resilience; the restoration of public trust in the system; and a need for a strong focus on delivering affordable housing and healthy place-shaping as three overarching priorities we hope the next Government will adopt. 

To make a difference across these themes, we are clear about six specific actions that a new Government should initiate within the first 100 days in power: 

  1. Changing national planning policy to reflect ambitions on strategic housing delivery, zero carbon and health and wellbeing.  
  1. Tabling secondary legislation to return planning powers to local government.  
  1. Publishing a ministerial statement that draws on the Scottish Government’s policy statement on public participation to signal of new approach to building genuine public trust.  
  1. Making changes to the focus of Homes England so that the agency plays a much stronger role in supporting local planning authorities in the strategic coordination of large-scale housing growth.  
  1. Establishing a task force that will lead the process of producing a national spatial plan for England.  
  1. Publishing a planning Green Paper to allow for a full consultation on the new Government’s long term planning aspirations. This would include the ambition for a new statutory purpose for planning based on UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

There will of course be many more actions that are needed – not least properly funding local councils so they are able to deliver high quality planning services. This is one of the asks we very much support that is included in the RTPIs’ ‘planifesto’. We have focused on the six asks above, however, because we believe they could be delivered quickly, without a commitment to significant, new spending, and make an important difference.  

Whilst we will promote these asks to all political parties, we have also published a more detailed contribution to the housing debate, which we hope will inform political thinking. We know there continues to be a cross-party consensus on the need for more homes. Our Shared Future: A TCPA White Paper for Homes and Communities, draws on the lessons and knowledge from our work on the New Towns and new communities, to set out the practical measures that are needed to deliver sustainable, affordable and net zero communities.  

The report asserts that rather than being a problematic barrier to growth– planning is an essential part of the solution. And a critical part of the planning system is a national spatial plan that supports and enables national strategic growth through large-scale settlements, as well as local strategic growth and housing delivered through local plans. The current approach seeks to enable local strategic growth of between 1,500 and 10,000 homes, as demonstrated by members of the TCPA’s New Communities Group, but the system is complex and national government needs to provide confidence and certainty to support the delivery of these long-term schemes. 

A central theme of the paper is that while planning for housing is important – for too long the emphasis has been on speeding up and consenting more houses, without a sufficient focus on the effective delivery of homes to make sure those homes are actually built. As the report’s executive summary states: 

While investors, infrastructure providers and local government all have a contribution to this programme, the key responsibility for unlocking housing delivery sits squarely with national government. Its role is not to impose but rather to enable delivery by creating the preconditions for success. This includes the creation of a national spatial plan and a commitment to invest in the large-scale expansion of socially rented homes. 

Even before the Election was called, we had sent this report to the political parties and we hope they read it and our manifesto with interest! I am very aware that there is not cross-sector consensus on what changes are necessary to enable the planning system to deliver the homes and communities needed. Consequently, we have what has felt like almost constant tweaks and reforms to planning policy and legislation over the last decade or more. We need reform, and this time we need to get it right. 

This blog has been adapted from Fiona’s article, that was published in the March/April 2024 edition of Town & Country Planning  

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