Why is the UK planning system under scrutiny?
The UK, like many countries, needs to build new homes—a lot of them. Yet late last year, under pressure from its own backbenchers, the government scrapped its mandatory target of delivering 300,000 homes annually by the mid-2020s.
It says it remains committed to building this number of new homes and has started the ball rolling on reforming the planning landscape—which many have long argued is no longer fit for purpose—so that more can be built.
But questions remain over whether the proposed changes will make the job of delivering the homes the country needs easier. And why does the existing planning system have such ardent critics? What do the government’s proposed reforms look like? And what might they mean for those charged with designing and delivering new housing developments?
Planning for change
In a major survey of planning committee members across England and Wales, the National Planning Barometer found “a combination of internal systemic issues that prevent adequate communication and engagement between key stakeholders and external pressure from frequent changes to national planning policy, creating a perfect storm.
“Hanging over all of this is a crisis of resource that sees local authority planning departments unable to deliver the service on which that system relies. Result: an acknowledged national housing crisis, with planning consents heading towards a record low.”
The report highlights “a frequent disconnect between planning officer recommendations and planning committee decisions affects the morale and workload of planning departments, impacting planners’ sense of efficacy within their role, and causing them to leave what are already under-resourced teams.”
Developers, according to SEC Newgate, which published the research into the planning system, question months spent in dialogue with council officers and in consultation with communities, “when this culminates in just three minutes to make their case at committee, often in front of decision-makers with widely differing agendas and priorities.”
Others are more critical. A report by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) on the state of the country’s housing delivery and affordability was introduced by the organisation’s executive chairman Stewart Basely, who said his members wanted to build new, high-quality, energy-efficient homes to help solve the country’s housing crisis.
“Sadly,” he went on, “developers are still too often hampered by a restrictive planning system, an anti-development mindset and short-term politics trumping the needs of communities.”
While local authorities may agree the planning system doesn’t work, many disagree that they are anti-development. Built UK spoke to one local councilor who asked for anonymity in south London who claimed his colleagues weren’t anti-development in general, but were against certain housing developments that didn’t meet their criteria.
“We need housing which contains social housing, which fits with the local area and which attracts investment,” the local councilor said. “We will work with developers who want to make money and start off not wanting to build any social housing at all, and we deal back and forth until we reach a compromise whereby they do, although it’s generally not as much as we’d hoped for and it’s more than they wanted to deliver.”
Advisory targets proposed
With such influential critics on all sides, how should the planning system be overhauled? And what does the government propose?
As well as stipulating more homes are built in urban areas and on brownfield land—seen as a move designed to reassure voters in rural parts of the country—the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee (LUHCC) of MPs notes the government’s proposals include making local housing delivery targets advisory and removing the need for local authorities to continually demonstrate a deliverable five-year housing land supply.
This could prove a sticking point, the LUHCC committee said. It had heard evidence from many stakeholders which suggested that such measures “will render the national housing target impossible to achieve.
“While the government’s objective to ensure more local authorities have up-to-date local plans is laudable, [ministers have] not provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate how the proposed reforms will increase housebuilding to meet the national housing target by the mid-2020s.”
The LUHCC also warned the methodology governing how housing need was assessed needed addressing. “A revised standard method should take account of future local need, encourage regeneration across the country and apply fairly to all local authorities,” it said, adding that the government’s reforms to national planning policy would also fail if local authorities lack sufficient resources to implement them.
A resource issue
Resources within the planning system have certainly been an issue for years. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) argues that money spent by local authorities on planning activities has been drastically reduced in recent years.
In 2019, the RTPI called for greater investment in public place making from central government and improving the expertise of planners in local councils.
“Better resourcing, powers and working practices could make local authorities an exciting place for planners to work,” the RTPI added.
Such investments would deliver huge returns, the institute argued, “and rather than being forced to rely on generating more fees, local planning authorities could help deliver social, environmental and economic outcomes which made society more resilient, happier and fairer.”
The RTPI has warned that the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and its supporting documents “would fundamentally weaken England’s planning system without some important changes that [we] urge MPs and Lords to support.”
Planning permissions ignored
While some point the finger at what they call a slow, bureaucratic and outdated planning system, others suggest that more should be done with the land that has received planning permission.
Currently planning permission expires after three years, after which a developer has to re-apply for planning consent. However, many successful UK planning applications never reach the construction stage.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said more than a million homes granted planning permission between 2009-10 and 2020 were not built. The LGA said roughly 2.5 million units were granted planning permission by councils, but only around 1.5 million have been completed.
And it is still an issue, as our anonymous local councillor told Built UK. “One of the problems we have is we often grant permission to build, and the homes just don’t get delivered for whatever reason. That’s not a problem with the planning system; it’s an issue with the developer.”
What next for planning policy?
Looking ahead, the proposed planning reforms clearly don’t please everyone. That said, one area that encourages the Royal Town Planning Institute is the issue of more resources for planning departments.
The government has given “serious consideration to the system’s resourcing challenges—something the RTPI has been campaigning on for a long time,” it said.
The success of the changes to the UK planning system hinges on politics as much as anything else.
With a general election looming and the possibility of a new Labour administration sometime next year—and what it wants to do with the planning regime—it remains to be seen if the reforms currently being pushed through Parliament will have the impact their supporters hope.