Rebuilding Trust?

As we hit the end of the Planning White Paper consultation who is listening and what needs to happen next? 

Planning reform is not the most important thing on the governments agenda. There are those small issues of the pandemic and whether Christmas is cancelled. But it is still interesting that the debate on the future of the English planning system continues to be a high-octane part of the political debate.      

Recent reforms to the current system have been mixed up with the White Paper proposals into an intense debate about the kind of planning system England really wants. There is no doubt that the government is resolute in its desire to tear down the 1947 planning system but it is equally clear that the shine has quickly come off the White Paper and the political costs of its implementation are increasingly visible. Debates in parliament on permitted development and housing numbers give some indication of this controversy but so too do countless online actions by community networks.    

The standout issue for the TCPA was and remains the fate of local democratic control and public participation. These concerns have been fuelled by a strong undercurrent in the White Paper that seeks to centralise powers over things like permitted development and design. And we are not alone in raising these concerns. The Charter for Planning Democracy is just one example of how communities are responding to the threat of reduced accountability and how their ambition is not simply to defend existing rights but to extend them.  

The consultation deadline marks, we hope, the beginning and not the end of the intense debate over what a reformed planning system needs to look like and, more importantly, the soul of public interest planning in England. 

The consultation deadline marks, we hope, the beginning and not the end of the intense debate over what a reformed planning system needs to look like and, more importantly, the soul of public interest planning in England.  Because despite reassurances made publicly and privately on things like local democracy and affordable housing numbers there is no consensus on the merits of the proposals in the White Paper.  

In fact, the debate is increasingly polarised, for example, there is strong support in parts the property and legal sectors for the direction of the White Paper. There are equally determined voices, of which the TCPA is one, campaigning for a system which is both democratically accountable and participative and is framed around achieving the public interest. There are multiple shades of concern in between these views particularly from local government, reaching out into almost every aspect of the White Paper proposals. It reminds me of a comment made at the end of a long day during our conversations on the Raynsford Review that ‘no one agrees with anyone about anything’.  

We do know that a great deal of technical development work will be necessary in order to implement the White Paper proposals. The work to fill in the gaps left by the White Paper will take MHCLG sometime and the delivery dates set out in the White Paper look increasingly tenuous. The delay and possible cancellation of the Devolution White Paper also has a huge impact on the unresolved issue of strategic planning. Further announcements on project speed from the Treasury and on the implementation of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commissions report have yet to arrive but will all impact on the direction of planning reform. As do other internal processes like the governments review of planning for flood risk.  

So, we come to an important choice for the government. On the one hand it can press ahead with the changes in the White Paper at pace and in the face of all the concerns and entrenched opposition. The prize will be a radically new system but we believe there will be very significant political and economic costs. Or the government could choose to change the terms of the debate by setting out a process for building consensus for change.  It could use this time to ensure that change is tested, workable and based on a detailed understanding of planning practise from planners, developers and community groups 

If it is determined to do so, I have no doubt the government can face down any amount of opposition to its planning reform agenda.  But it must be in all our interests to at least try to find some common ground on which to take forward planning reform. To help with that the TCPA has published an alternative approach to planning reform in which we seek to define what all sectors might be willing to tolerate and even positively support. You can find ‘Common Ground’ here. In the messy process of building a lasting consensus there would be no prizes for ideological purity but there would be immense political capital in a system which was effective and legitimate. Above all there is value in a lasting settlement which draws a line under the piecemeal, constant and corrosive nature of planning reform over the last 10 years.  

Standing back from almost three decades of planning reform I’m conscious of the immense energy expended on periodic changes which would have been much better directed in supporting communities to deliver sustainable places. In reality we would have been a much better position now if we had left the planning system alone after 2010. If we are not careful history will repeat itself with radical new structures of planning resulting in no tangible benefit to people on the ground.  

There is of course a third outcome of planning reform and that is the ad hoc abandonment of elements of the reform agenda driven by political realities. This may well lead to a kind of unworkable soup of zoning, codes, discretion and deregulation all set in the mind-boggling complexity of English local government structures.  

There is, therefore, an urgent need for clarity around next steps following the close of the consultation period. Planning reform is necessary, but we need to get it right.  If you want a system that works well, people need to understand how all of these proposals fit together before planning legislation is brought forward. As the government has discovered, planning reform isn’t easy. It requires a detailed understanding of everything from land economy to community identity, from aesthetic design to carbon literacy and from national geography to the finest detail of people’s neighbourhoods. The greatest mistake of all is to think that any planning decision can be streamlined into a binary choice.   

Above all we must not underplay the vital importance of governance in any new planning framework. The voice of communities matters and is a non-negotiable part of any new planning framework. If they are to achieve successful reform, there is a need for government to articulate how that voice is to be embedded through democratic processes and citizens’ rights.   After the pandemic rebuilding wider public trust will be a national priority. Planning will be litmus test of whether Whitehall can respond to the urgent need for democratic renewal.  

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