The government has published a new planning White Paper to shake up the English planning system. While the White Paper has welcome language about the importance of planning, the TCPA is concerned about how these changes will impact on local people’s voice in the process.  We are also worried that the new system won't be fit to deal with the climate crisis or the delivery of genuinely affordable homes.  At the same time that the government published the White Paper they also announced reforms to the existing planning system. These reforms will have an equally big impact by removing the need for planning permission for the demolition and rebuild of certain kind of buildings.   All of these reforms have a common theme of removing local voices from the process. 

We would encourage everyone who cares about their local neighbourhood or wants to take action on climate, affordable homes and health to get involved in the debate about the White Paper.

  • You can find planning the White Paper consultation here.
  • The consultation on the changes  proposed to be existing system  can be found here.

The following briefing is designed to answer some of the questions we know are being raised within our networks about the planning White Paper. If you want more detail, please look at the blogs on our website here. We will will publish further analysis in due course, and the next edition of our members journal will focus extensively on the planning White Paper.


Is the White Paper really a radical change to planning?

Yes.  In his foreword to the WP the Prime Minister states ‘The whole thing is beginning to crumble and the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again. That is what this paper proposes.’   It is clear, therefore, that the ambition of the government is to completely rewrite the English planning system. So, there is a great deal at stake. In the form set out in the White Paper, the TCPA does not believe that the new framework will guarantee better outcomes. And we are concerned that while there is an emphasis on making the system more accessible through technology, it will reduce democratic accountability.   It will take powers away from local authorities so that more policy and decisions are made centrally.


But isn't change desperately needed to the existing planning system?

Change is definitely needed and the TCPA set out a comprehensive reform package in the Raynsford Review. The problem is that the Government’s White Paper is the wrong set of changes. We need a comprehensive and democratic planning system capable of dealing with the health, housing and climate crisis and ensuring that decisions are democratic and accountable. The current planning system has many faults but it has consistently delivered more approvals for housing than the industry can build.   It also needs to be more democratic not less.


How will the new system work?

It's not easy to understand from the White Paper how the new planning system will work but in outline the system will rest on the designation in local plans of three zones.  Each zone will have a distinctly different planning system.

  • Protected zones which will include some areas which will be defined nationally (ie Green Belt and designated areas) and others can be defined locally on the basis of national policy (ie important areas of green space and areas of open countryside outside of the two zones below). Development is possible within this zone and the restrictions on that development will be set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.
  • Renewal zones will cover existing built areas where smaller scale development would be appropriate. Development would be enabled through a complex mixture of permitted development, permission in principle and traditional planning. For some forms of development design codes and patent books will determine the outcome.
  • Growth zones will be areas that are seen as ‘suitable for substantial development’, such as new settlements, urban extensions and areas for redevelopment. For these sites the plan would grant outline planning permission so that development automatically has planning permission subject to compliance with national and locally prepared design codes and pattern books. The key thing is that normal second stage of applying for full planning applications will be removed. Planning committee won’t decide applications in same way and people will not have the same right to comment on the specific proposals.


How will the three zones be designated?

The zones will be identified through the development of the local plan, but the White Paper is not completely clear about how the process of allocating land into different zones will work. Local authorities will have to consider national policy, centralized housing targets and environmental constraints.


What will be the scope and content of design codes and pattern books? Will they allow us to embed zero carbon development and health?

The government sees a much stronger role for a national and local design codes and pattern books, which will have a powerful role in decision making in the new system. The White Paper refers to the broad principles set out in the National Design Guide, but states that these broad principles now need to be turned into more specific standards.  In certain areas of the White Paper there is also a clear emphasis on guides reflecting ‘local character’ and information about the ‘form and appearance’ of development.   We would want to see more emphasis in guides about the environmental performance of buildings and how we can create healthy environments.

A national design code is under preparation and the White Paper suggests that local design codes could be prepared in parallel to the new zonal local plans. It's not clear how far, if at all, these local codes can depart from national policy.


Will the new system be more or less democratic?

Less. There is no doubt that the major impact of these reforms will be to make the system less democratic with less opportunities for communities to participate. This is the case for the following reasons:

  1. The approval of new development in growth zones will shift to the plan-making stage. The traditional process of politicians deciding planning applications with opportunities for the public to make representations is effectively at an end. In paragraph 1.16, third bullet point, the White Paper says this about the process: ‘Our reforms will democratise the planning process by putting a new emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage. At the same time, we will streamline the opportunity for consultation at the planning application stage, because this adds delay to the process and allows a small minority of voices, some from the local area and often some not, to shape outcomes’.   
  2. The White Paper suggests in paragraph 2.48, under stage 4, that people’s right to be heard in person will be changed. The paper states that inspectors will now have discretion as to what form an objector’s representations might take. Under paragraph 2.53, which is an alternative option to the one set out in paragraph 2.48, the paper goes even further and suggests any form of ‘right to be heard’ might be removed .  The right to be heard at Section 20 of the 2004 Planning Act is the only clear civil right that exists in the planning process for the individual citizen. The right includes the important phrase ‘in person’ in order to allow an individual to appear in front of an inspector and exercise other opportunities to cross examine witnesses.  So, the opportunity to appear at a public inquiry has been replaced with the opportunity for an inspector to have a telephone conversation with you, or ask for further written comments, if they choose to do so. This is not an increase in democratisation. 
  3. TheWhite Paper does not provide a single new right for community participation or a single new opportunity for a democratic moment in the plan-making process but rather reduces both rights and opportunities to participate. There is no basis to the claim that this system will ‘democratise’ planning. The only additional opportunity comes from the White Paper’s hunch that digitising information will encourage community participation.  Digital information can potentially lead to a more openness and will hopefully make planning more accessible, but it does nothing on its own to give communities more control over their future. That is only secured through clear democratic process and through clear individual civil rights.


Will the new system deliver on the climate crisis?

No, we do not believe it will.  The White Paper does recognise that planning is ‘central’ to important national challenges, including combating climate change, but the reforms do not make it a key priority that would enable the planning system to respond to the climate crisis.  There is no description of how radical reductions in carbon will be delivered in the new system. Likewise, there's no description of how the new zones will respond the dramatic predicted impacts of climate change in terms of flooding and coastal realignment.


How will new digital technology help the planning system?

The White Paper places a strong emphasis on how new technology can be used in the planning process. This could be a welcome development if it makes data easier to access and plans easier to understand and engage with. Making processes more accessible is welcome, but technology on its own doesn't make the planning process more democratic and we need to make sure we are not excluding those who are less technologically able.


What is the point of neighbourhood planning under the new system?

Many people have got involved in neighbourhood plans since they were created but it's not clear from the White Paper how they fit into the new system. There is a real risk that the current effort devoted to neighbourhood plans could be bypassed and it's vital that the government makes clear what the future scope and power of neighbourhood plans is going to be.


Should I bother getting involved in my existing local and neighbourhood plans if the system is going to radically change?

The government is consulting on the proposals in the White Paper and so it's not clear if all these changes will eventually be implemented. And even if they are, as we set out below it will take time for any new system to come into force. If you're involved in local plans, neighbourhood plans or campaigning on planning applications it's vital to keep going with that work.


How long will the reform process take?

The government wants to see new local plans in place by the end of this parliament, which  is in place in four years’ time. This is based on new local plans taking 30 months to be in place. This is very ambitious and will mean that they'll need to be new planning law in 2021 along with revised national policy. Because of the controversial nature of the White Paper proposals and the other reforms to the planning process we are calling on the government to seriously reflect on people’s concerns and reach a proper consensus between all the sectors before changes are made.


Is there any more reform planned for the system?

The planning White Paper is mostly about local plans, planning applications and proposed changes to planning obligations but further reforms are likely to be consulted on in the autumn. This will be based on the governments ‘project speed’ initiative and will be focused on streamlining the planning process for big infrastructure projects but the White Paper also refers to consulting on proposals to replace Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment in the autumn.


How do I respond to the Consultation?

The consultation is open until the 29th of October and there is information about how to respond in the Paper. Options for responding include via the website https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-thefuture, emailing a response to [email protected] or posting a response to Planning Directorate, 3rd Floor, Fry Building, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF. 

There are two versions of the White Paper which is a bit confusing. There is a PDF version with photographs but no paragraph numbers and a web accessible version which does have paragraph numbers. If you want to get into the detail we suggest you use the web accessible version.


How can I help the TCPA campaign for democratic planning?

If you would like to help support the TCPA in our campaign for a democratic planning system that will deliver long term sustainable development and improve the health and well-being of all our communities there are three main ways to do that. Firstly, please consider responding to the consultation on the White Paper raising the concerns we have set out above about a loss of democracy. Secondly, please consider making a donation to support our work, here. And thirdly, if you are not already a member of the Association please consider joining; further information is available, here.

If you would also like to be kept up to date about our work please consider signing up for our e-bulletin, which you can do at the bottom of this page.