New London Architecture

Planning Reform – time to put the plan back into planning

Thursday 02 July 2020

Tom Venables

Prior + Partners

Reform of the planning system has been a consistent priority of successive Governments. This time, though, the signals are that this could be a much more radical than previous attempts. There is a lot to be said for planning reform if it can bring about visionary, creative plan making.

Radical planning reform for England is a top priority for Government and on 30th June Boris Johnson announced major changes to the planning system as part of his “Build, Build, Build” announcement. This starts with changes to the Use Class Order, enabling for example, empty shop units to be converted to residential uses. While flexibility and a move towards more town centre living may be part of the answer the government must also demonstrate they have learnt lessons from previously introduced permitted development rights have that have led to inexcusable living conditions.[1] 

This week’s announcements are due to be followed by a planning policy paper in July setting out the plan for comprehensive reform of England’s “appalling” planning system as Dominic Cummings recently described it.

While a level of reform is required, the obliteration of the system is not the solution. The Local Government Association highlighted that nine in 10 planning applications are approved by Councils, while recent analysis shows more than a million homes consented over the last decade have not been built[2]. While many developers and politicians consistently complain that the system is slow, in many cases it is as a result of significant cutbacks in public sector planning over the past ten years. Spending on planning and housing has fallen dramatically over the past ten years, with planning taking a 59% negative hit (from £52 per person in 2009/10 to £21 per person in 2019/20[3].

The Royal Town Planning Institute has consistently identified the importance of planning in facilitating good quality development and this week launched the “Plan the World We Need”[4] campaign, highlighting the need for planning more than ever to mitigate the fall-out from the Covid-19 crisis, as well as the Government declared Climate Emergency, requiring net zero emissions by 2050. These huge issues point to a greater requirement for good planning and joined up thinking between geographies and disciplines.

Our work at Prior + Partners demonstrates that planning can play a tremendous role in bringing forward high quality, sustainable development and what is needed is  
a much more visionary approach to planning in England. In our view this should comprise as a minimum:
·      A national spatial plan for England – as advocated by the UK2070 Commission[5] this should set out growth and infrastructure priorities, making important links to environmental capacity and climate change to assist in meeting net zero objectives. This would support the economic “levelling up” of regions and establish priorities for growth and infrastructure investment.
·      Effective strategic planning –10 years after the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies, the potential for a greater role for strategic planning is on the table, for example with far more joined up thinking between London and its wider city region
·      A focus on town planning - In the country that invented the “science and art” of town planning over 100 years ago, very few “town plans” actually now get produced. Our view is that all towns and cities should have their own spatial plan that provides vision for places, and a joined-up strategy for how individual cities or towns should grow and regenerate.
·      Masterplans and Master Developers to guide major development - In our view the most successful recent examples of strategic development are those that have taken a “master-developer” approach where a single entity (public, private or JV/SPV) takes forward the development of a site. The master developer is responsible for developing the overall masterplan, and holding the vision for the overall development, taking on the role of curator, bringing forward infrastructure, streets and spaces. 
Planning reform is a thorny issue for any Government, and practitioners and commentators alike lament the years of “tinkering” with the system. There is a lot to be said for planning reform if it can bring about visionary, creative plan making. Whatever happens reform will need well-resourced local authorities and developers, an upskilled built environment profession, and leadership by the public and private sectors to be successful in achieving its objectives. 

Tom Venables

Prior + Partners




Planning today


Planning today

Thomas Bender, specialist in heritage and architecture, listed buildings and large developments at planning consultants...

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