The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act: neither effective nor democratic 

Hugh Ellis explains how the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Act (LURA) is a massive missed opportunity to reimagine the planning system

A new era of town planning has begun in England with the royal assent of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act (LURA).  Summarising this legislation is not easy, largely because it is made up of complex procedural amendments rather than a fresh approach. But, taken as a whole, this new law is essentially a massive missed opportunity.  

In reaching that conclusion it’s worth remembering that planning reform had to deal with a set of key procedural and outcome challenges: 

  • In procedural terms, it needed to grapple with the strategic deficit in England and particularly how to replace the dysfunctional duty to cooperate.  
  • It also had to begin to bridge the gulf of public trust in the planning system which had been significantly exacerbated by a continual centralisation of what had been local government responsibilities.  
  • In terms of real-world outcomes, planning had to deal with three major crises around affordable housing, climate change and public health. 

The new legislation fails every possible test of strategic coherence, democratic accountability and practical effectiveness.

It is extraordinary, therefore, that the new legislation fails every possible test of strategic coherence, democratic accountability and practical effectiveness.  It is perhaps even more extraordinary that this system – most notably the local plan framework – is even more complex than the current system. 

An absence of strategic coherence 

In terms of strategic coherence, the abolition of the duty to cooperate without any binding mechanism to ensure strategic cooperation leaves the planning system hobbled in dealing with cross boundary issues such as climate and housing.  

The new Spatial Development Strategies, which are part of the local plan and capable of being adopted by a single or group of authorities, are voluntary. Little more needs to be said about whether they will be adopted in those areas confronting politically difficult choices about strategic futures.     

More centralised and less democratic 

The system is undoubtedly more centralised and less democratic, creating new parts of the development plan for which there is no right to be heard for the public. The centralising tendency is represented by the radical heart of the legislation which is the creation of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs). For the first time since 1947, one specific part of national policy will have a defined legal status on the face of the Act which outranks local plan policy.  

NDMPs are a serious problem for devolution and local democracy. I also believe they will be much more difficult and controversial to adopt then government has suggested. Unless they are incredibly narrowly focused, writing NDMPs that have any degree of meaningfulness for the diverse communities of England will be extremely difficult and testing the conformity of local plans to these new national policy edicts will give lawyers a bonanza of work. 

Prioritising process over purpose 

The new legislation makes the fatal mistake of previous planning reform in focusing entirely on process and doing nothing to provide additional clarity about the outcomes that are expected from the planning system. The Secretary of State resisted any attempts to insert a basic purpose for the planning system or any provisions in detail – or in general – to ensure the system supports health and wellbeing.

There was a minor concession secured in relation to climate so that the existing duty to consider climate mitigation and adaptation will now be applied to the development of NDMPs.  

While there are welcome marginal measures on compulsory purchase and hope value, these will not, on their own, help support large scale strategic housing growth.

There was also nothing that might transform housing delivery. This legislation did not comprehensively refresh the New Towns Act, for example. While there are welcome marginal measures on compulsory purchase and hope value, these will not, on their own, help support large scale strategic housing growth. 

On other critical issues, such as the fate of the infrastructure levy, the government has ended in a highly confused and lengthy implementation process designed to test and learn how a new system might be framed. This is precisely the kind of work you do before primary legislation not after it.  

Other measures such as Environmental Outcome Reports are now dependent on detailed secondary legislation, but we know from the detail on the face of the Act that they exclude assessments of human health which will be disastrous for the planning process.  

Barriers to implementation  

Whether this new system will ever be fully implemented depends on two issues. Firstly, the degree to which a public planning service that is already facing many challenges including a lack of funding and morale, can meet the demands of this new system.

The timescales involved for implementation require enormous amounts of policy and secondary legislation which will run for at least the next two years.  As a result, the second major challenge is a general election and the choices that the next government seeks to make on planning reform. 

In over 30 years of working on planning reforms, I have never seen such a huge investment of time and effort for such a poor return in public policy outcomes.

Failing to make a difference  

In trying to summarise the benefits of the enormous effort that has gone into this legislation we can be clear that it will make no significant difference over the outcomes of the current system. It fails to solve the key questions of good governance, strategic competence and outcome focus that should be at the heart of any sensible planning reform agenda.  

As a result, it has wasted not just enormous amounts of resources in government but the valuable time of the wider planning sector and local government. In over 30 years of working on planning reforms, I have never seen such a huge investment of time and effort for such a poor return in public policy outcomes.  

Local planning authorities, communities and developers will now have to work with the reality of this system, but they should not encumber themselves by believing that it is rational, effective or democratic. 

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