The modern planning system in England is rooted in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act This established two important elements:
(i). a legal framework for development, where land ownership alone was not the sole condition required for development and planning permission needed to be sought and certain criteria met; and
(ii) institutional re-structuring to grant county and borough councils ownership of planning processes, based on local development plans aligned to a national strategic planning framework.
From its progressive roots, the English planning system since the late 1970s has undergone a significant paradigm shift. The state has taken an increasingly diminished role, making way for the market to lead, creating a tendency to sideline social and environmental outcomes.
A fundamental criticism of the English planning system is that it is cumbersome and opaque based around local development plans which are slow to prepare and even slower to implement. Lack of coherence and slow speed of implementation of Local Development Plans makes for a spatial planning system ill-equipped to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.
The spatial planning system in England today is guided top-down by the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF), but local development plans, which are part of the Local Development Schemes which are a legal requirement for local authorities to produce following the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, remain the cornerstone of implementation, albeit with plans for phase them out.
Local plans tend to be long, complex documents. For example, the Newcastle Local Plan consists of:
1. 360-page Core Strategy and Urban Core Plan (CSUCP) for Gateshead and Newcastle 2010-2030.
2.147-page Development and Allocations Plan 2015-2030 (DAP).
3. 172-page appendices.
The overall result is a diluted and complex document from which it is difficult to obtain a tangible sense of what the spatial vision for the area seeks to achieve beyond economic prosperity.
Successive planning reforms (e.g. 1990, 1991, 2004, 2011, 2015, 2018, 2020) indicate that there is cross-party consensus that the spatial planning system, the NPPF and, by design, Local Development Plans is flawed. However, so far, planning reforms have been at best, incremental, and at worst, entrench existing issues.
The deeply fragmented, incoherent system means that English planners are tasked with achieving too many policy objectives with little resource in a flawed institutional system that is the highly centralised political system of England.
The housing crisis rages on
The affordable housing crisis at the centre of the critique of the English planning system. The housing issue is structural and partially related to land ownership models in England, and partially due to the structure of the housing market which is over-dominated by large private developers with little interest beyond economic gain in the places in which they secure development rights.
The failure to address the housing crisis is symptomatic of the incoherent, fragmented nature of English spatial planning. Planning and housing sectors would be well placed to work closely together to tackle the deep inequalities in English society and their impacts, as well as developing deliverable strategies to tackling climate change.
Until the affordable housing crisis is tackled through a radical redistribution of property-based wealth, the spatial planning system is unable to deliver meaningful impact in terms of integrating with other sector to address inequalities in cities.
Skeffington Report (1969)
The 1969 People and Planning (Skeffington Report) continues to provide the benchmark for engaging the British public in earlier on in the process of developing local development plans. In response to the highly centralised planning system framed by the 1947 TPCA, the 1968 amendment mandated that planning authorities must share local development plans with the public, provide an opportunity for affected residents respond. In line with the discretionary, common-law system which shapes public life in Britain, the new recommendations provided no legal grounds or details in how they could be implemented. It was therefore the responsibility of local authorities to interpret the public participation amendment how they saw fit, leading to uneven results.
While the Skeffington Report did make mention of increasing engagement with the planning system by people from underrepresented groups, it did not mention exactly who, or how (Community Planning Toolkit, 2016). This continues to be vital for the modern planning system to overcome, given that the majority of public engagement is with people over 55 and 56% of people in England have never engaged with the planning system at all.
While available data lacks granularity of ethnicity of those engaged in the planning system in England, an ethnographic data shows that even in a London borough where 54% of the population are not white, planning consultation meetings were almost entirely white, the planners and developers themselves were white, and all of the people in the rendering of proposed developments were white. When this is placed in the context of 37% of black people in England having no access to a garden, balcony, or outdoor space (ONS, 2020), it makes the failure of the planning to engage those who are most likely to rely on public parks and green spaces for their leisure time even more startling.
While local politicians have the right to vote on new planning developments, as in the current system, the planning system in England will remain highly politicised. Planning committees are responsible for passing local planning decisions, but they are constituted of elected councillors who often have limited knowledge of planning systems.
Impact of austerity on planning
Spatial planning preparations and development delivery and implementation at local level have been constrained by local authorities a decade of austerity measures, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated for planning departments by 2015 was around a cumulative average of 45%. With such limited resources for a time-consuming and resource intensive activity as community engagement, it is of little surprise then that Local Development Plan formulation is estimated by the RTPI to have a 1% public rate of engagement, and the participation in the individual planning process is estimated to be at 3%. These figures, coupled with inability of councillors to genuinely represent a cross-section of interests in their local constituencies, highlight a serious problem of democracy and participation in the England planning system.
Discretionary planning systems
Discretionary planning means that central government sets guidance, policies, and visions for how planning will be implemented by regional and local tiers of government, but local authorities have a large degree of discretion on how these translate into reality through formulation of local development plans.
Discretionary systems are characterised by overlapping planning and policy systems often involving different processes or aims, and it is the role of planning departments to interpret these aims to inform negotiations over final planning decisions. This contrasts with the codification of statutory systems.
An effective spatial planning system should be able to merge the benefits of a discretionary system, where flexibility allows the planning system to respond to changes in circumstances and place-specific conditions, with the consistency and predictability of the planning outcomes of a regulatory planning system. The Planning for the Future Reforms published in 2020 recognise that the English discretionary planning system in its current guise is flawed, and opened the prospect of implementing a zoning system of sorts in the English planning system.
Progressive aims of the TCPA 1947 manifested in nationalised development rights for land use. Consecutive reforms since 1979 have increasingly returned to the pre-1947 system of land ownership concentrated in the hands of a minority of private individuals. The concept of “planning gains,” an ostensibly mitigating factor, was introduced by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 under Section 106, where local authorities could exercise the right to benefit from selling land to developers by capturing the difference between land value and its uplift as a developable site. The logic was that this gain could then be used to fund public infrastructure (libraries, parks, social housing). However, while this initially appears to be a progressive amendment, it does not always achieve socially progressive outcomes. In a recent example, the Nine Elms developers in London used the S106 clause to fund a new tube station under the guise of constructing a new station as a public good. Whether a new tube station is needed in an area of London that mostly consists of luxury apartments during an ongoing and chronic housing affordability crisis remains highly dubious.
Permitted Development rights (PDs) are a feature of the English planning system where planning proposals meeting specific criteria do not require planning permission. The logic is to ease the pressure on the housing market by making it easier to “flip” buildings to residential usage with minimal bureaucracy. However, this unfettered approach to planning continues to place pressure on local authorities who are required to spend limited time and resource in verifying whether developments met the criteria for PDs, and producing certification to prove their status. It has not reduced the burden on planning departments. This is one example of unsustainable solutions to avoid what is really required to address the housing crisis: rent controls and adequate state intervention, i.e. a significant spend to increase the mass supply of affordable housing as those seen in the 1950s-70s.
The English spatial planning system is deeply flawed. While it does reflect a flawed and difficult wider political context, there are some measures that can be taken to improve the situation. While the Planning for the Future White Paper set out by the Government in 2020 recognises these flaws, there has been no mention of preventing misuse of S106 agreements and the remedies it does put forward, particularly pertaining to improving public participation and tackling spatial inequality provoked by English land use laws, are inadequate.