The English planning system is in need of a total overhaul, according to the recent Raynsford review. What kind of changes might we implement to create a more straightforward system and one that puts people and communities at its core?
If anything is likely to raise the hackles of a local community, it is a “controversial” development in its back yard. While developers are often seen as pitting themselves against the communities in whose world they wish to build, communities can themselves be divided, with advocates for schemes being shouted down by those opposing them. With so many stakeholders and so many views, such divisions are unsurprising. However, in the eyes of Nick Raynsford they are getting worse.
In his recently published interim review of England’s planning system, the former Labour housing minister describes the ferocity of division in today’s planning debates as “unprecedented”. Throw in widespread public disenchantment with the planning process and its outcomes, he argues, and you get a system that has become unfit for purpose.
At the outset of his 72-page report for the Town and Country Planning Association, Raynsford says that planning, at its best, can have a transformational role in shaping where we live and our quality of life. But he believes its achievements are increasingly being challenged by powerful voices questioning planning’s very purpose “and arguing for the relaxation or repeal of the structures and powers that support the planning process in England”. In their view, says Raynsford, “planning is at best slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic, an obstacle to getting things done, or at worst ‘the enemy of enterprise’ which needs to be dismantled”.
“People often only interact with the planning system if something has gone wrong or there are objections”
Nicola White, Arup
Change and engagement
At the same time, he argues, the powers that can implement good planning are being eroded. The planning service is chronically underfunded, with staff often demoralised by working under increasingly constrained circumstances. Constant changes to the planning system have, in Raynsford’s view, crushed its ability to defend the public interest.
Clearly things must change. Raynsford’s recommendations seek to restore order and harmony to the planning system by putting people at its centre: is this the future of the English planning system? If so, how do construction professionals who have to navigate the system think this vision could be achieved?
Raynsford’s key propositions
- Planning in the public interest The market alone cannot deliver a full range of public interest outcomes
- Planning with a purpose Create a meaningful objective focused on the delivery of sustainable development
- Powerful, people-centred planning A plan-led system that should deliver co-ordination and certainty to developers and communities
- A new covenant for community participation To be effective, planning must have public legitimacy
- A new commitment to meeting people’s basic needs Rights to basic outcomes reflecting the minimum standards expected of planning
- Simplified planning law Set strategies within a national framework reflecting the nation’s development priorities
- Alignment between the agencies of English planning How to co-ordinate housing plans and infrastructure investment
- A fairer way to share land values Gains generated by actions of the state often become windfalls for the private sector
- A new kind of creative and visionary planner Planners need to inspire action, not just impose upon communities
Nicola White, a project director with Arup, agrees with Raynsford that constant changes to the planning system are part of the problem, as there is never a chance for the new ways to bed in. Legislation in 2004 replaced local plans with local development frameworks and statutory regional spatial strategies, but these were then binned by the coalition government in 2010 and replaced with the 2011 Localism Act, which also introduced neighbourhood planning.
This makes it hard to assess whether the system is really workable or not. Says White: “The question is whether the system is broken and needs to be fixed, or whether it needs to be worked better. There are frustrations, of course, but it can work well.”
The planning system can facilitate good development, in White’s view, but the manner in which the public engage with the system can be an issue. “People often only interact with the planning system if something has gone wrong or there are objections,” she says. It would be useful to get the views of people who are supportive of a scheme, “particularly if they have things to add that could make the project work better for the community”.
“Rather than having to wade through pages of PDFs on a council’s website, people could comment on a web page showing elements of the scheme”
Alasdair Buckle, Nexus Planning
The degree of public engagement can often depend on how a scheme is publicised and the availability of relevant information. Alasdair Buckle, a senior planner with Nexus Planning, believes councils are missing a trick when it comes to getting the views of the local community. “Planning details are often buried in a local authority’s website, which creates problems in terms of people trying to find the relevant information. There has to be scope for an interactive online system with easy-to-use formats,” he says.
Buckle suggests further digitalisation and the use of social media to make comments on proposed schemes easily viewable. “Currently you have to be quite knowledgeable to comment. Rather than having to wade through pages of PDFs on a council’s website, people could comment on a web page showing elements of the scheme.” A planning chatroom, as it were. While this runs the risk of becoming a forum for ranting, it would certainly broaden debate.
Buckle also thinks planning meetings ought to be live-streamed so more people can see what’s going on. While he acknowledges that not everyone has the wherewithal to do this, “it would be a way to reach the silent majority”.
Proposals can be relayed and views canvassed in other ways, says Arup’s White, particularly among young people. In the wake of the 2011 riots Arup shared masterplan ideas for regenerating Tottenham. “We talked about opportunities, not just problems. We worked with youth engagement officers at the local council to identify young people who could contribute and the feedback we got was tremendous. And we were able to offer some insight into what was happening beyond their immediate area.”
Such engagement need not be a one-off. Indeed, in south-east London Lewisham council is undertaking a similar exercise as it looks to develop the heart of Catford. But Raynsford argues there is a “broad disconnect” between the public and the wider planning system, a situation that needs to be addressed.
Of course all this costs money, and resourcing is a hot topic for both central and local government. Local councils have had their budgets slashed, with planning teams in some local authorities seeing reductions of 50%.
Permitted development rights
One of Raynsford’s recommendations is to give back to councils full development powers over the conversion of non-residential buildings into homes. These powers were curtailed by the extension of permitted development (PD) rights to permanent statute in 2015, when such conversions were deemed in most cases not to require planning permission.
There is support from some in the industry for this reversion to happen. As Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein, wrote recently in Building’s sister publication BD: “What is the point of a national planning system if the government itself keeps inventing ways to circumvent it?”
However, the change would increase the workload of already overburdened local authority planning departments. Buckle at Nexus Planning says that “revoking the permitted development system could have a major impact on resourcing. PD means that those schemes with low impact don’t require planning permission, which is good for local authorities who have limited time and money.”
A radical – if controversial – solution is suggested by Stacy Eden, head of property and construction at Crowe Clark Whitehill: “If local councils can’t get a development through because of local opposition, perhaps there comes a point when a scheme needs to be referred to central government for approval.” Since a tiny minority can scupper a project, Eden says, centralising things would get local politicians off the hook. “If they can’t get something they want past the ‘anti’ brigade, then they can send it up to central government. Let’s have some central oversight.”
Raynsford’s proposals take a very different approach, effectively seeking to reinstall the democratic element of community development. He wants a people-centric planning system, one that concerns itself with what he calls “broader social, economic and environmental implications for people and places”. Most of his recommendations have been acknowledged as steps in the right direction. The planning system, in his view, is moribund and, as he puts it “no longer capable of shaping the places we need to secure people’s long-term health and well-being”. It needs a radical and comprehensive overhaul, not a piecemeal one. If implemented, this will not be an overnight exercise.
As Levitt Bernstein’s Park stated recently: “It would take years to implement [Raynsford’s] proposals in practice. But setting out a positive vision for the future and ensuring that planning authorities are properly resourced would go a long way to restoring faith in a system that is uniquely placed to transform places and lives.”
The jury is out on whether the ex-Labour minister’s bold ambitions for the country’s planning regime will be implemented after the final report is published towards the end of the year. What is clear is that many hope they will be.
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