National planning reforms and implications for local government

Proposed structural changes to the English planning system (reproduced with kind permission of the TCPA)

The significant changes proposed for the planning system have inevitably courted controversy.

The talk of a ‘vacuum’ at regional level has only partly been quelled by the government’s replacement structures and initiatives. It remains to be seen whether the revised system of local communities making planning decisions within a strong national framework leads to responsible local solutions that take account of wider pressures, or lots of places pulling up a drawbridge on new development – publication of the draft NPPF in summer 2011 should help to flesh out how this is meant to work in practice.

Until more clarity emerges, councils will find themselves in a dilemma.

–          On the one hand, the abolition of regional strategies presents them with potential new freedoms to decide for themselves what development the planning evidence suggests is required locally.

–          On the other, the localism agenda – which is not covered here but has important implications for future planning practice and decision-making – is clear that communities should have a stronger say in the planning process.

But where does this leave councillors? As the planning academic Mark Tewdwr-Jones has remarked: “the role of elected local representatives is anyone’s guess.”

A specific example of this dilemma is providing for future housing growth. One of the more controversial elements of regional strategies had been to provide an allocation of new housing requirements to each local authority. Councils are now free to decide for themselves how much, if any, new housing they provide as long as the process they use to do this is transparent.

There is a vigorous debate about whether this will lead to a worsening shortage of new housing. The government says that imposed regional targets created antagonism. By getting rid of them and introducing new development incentives such as the New Homes Bonus, the planning system will deliver more houses and associated economic growth. This, says the coalition, will be done with the ‘support of local communities as proponents of sustainable growth’.

However, in an analysis of the proposed planning and housing policy reforms, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) argues that local housing needs assessments may lead to a ‘significant under-supply’ of new housing if they fail to adequately take into account international, national, and regional pressures and influences on housing supply and demand.

Related to this, Richard Summers, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), is concerned that the presumption in favour of sustainable development will in fact turn out to be a presumption that favours any development, with important implications for elected members:

“Where will the incentive be in the future for developers to address issues such as climate change, environmental protection, design quality and affordable housing, if they know that the government has tied the hands of local councillors who will be required to nod through most development proposals.”

There are many questions still to be resolved – watch out for the draft NPPF later in the year to see how many of these it will answer.

This post is based on a LGiU members briefing written by Andrew Ross . Briefings are accessible to all officers and elected members of our member authorities. For more information on joining the Local Government Information Unit please follow this link