There is clearly a case to be made to make reforms, and this is an opportunity to build an improved planning system which leads to better places and stronger communities. But it is crucial that the rush to “build, build, build” doesn’t override local democracy and accountability and the role of local places in delivering sustainable, community-led development.

The government’s much-trailed shake up of the planning system was published last week in a new white paper, “Planning for the Future.” Heralded as a plan to “overhaul the outdated planning system and reform the way the country builds,” the reforms are significant and wide ranging.

There is clearly a case to be made to make reforms, and this is an opportunity to build an improved planning system which leads to better places and stronger communities. But it is crucial that the rush to “build, build, build” doesn’t override local democracy and accountability and the role of local places in delivering sustainable, community-led development.

The white paper emphasises welcome improvements in areas such as design standards and use of technology in modernising planning processes.

The plans also include changes which would simplify land categories into three zones (growth, renewal and protected) in order to speed up the process for identifying potential building land. The role of local plans will be changed significantly. They would be used to divide up local planning authority land into the three new zones, and their remit would shift from  setting development management policies to the development of design codes, guides and parameters instead. While these design proposals will be subject to a local democratic process, this will only be at the point of initial decision-making – with no ongoing framework for public consultation and community control. The reforms to local plans could also have significant implications for the role of neighbourhood planning, potentially reducing their scope and ability to make site allocations.

We will be combing through the detail of the White Paper over the coming weeks, and consulting widely with partners and Locality members. Drawing on Locality’s experience in supporting neighbourhood planning (we manage the Government programme to support communities to develop neighbourhood plans) and our learning from the Localism Commission, we will be using three tests of community power to scrutinise these reforms.

Three tests for community power

1.    Maintaining meaningful community control

Neighbourhood planning has arguably been one of the most transformative community powers to come from the 2011 Localism Act. In the last nine years over 1,000 communities have made neighbourhood plans, with a further 2000 currently developing plans. Not only do neighbourhood plans involve a local referendum, they are accompanied by significant community engagement and have statutory weighting within the development plan framework.  Neighbourhood planning referendums typically experience high turnouts – often above local elections.

Within the current proposals, the government is also considering changing the role of neighbourhood plans to focus on a smaller range of planning issues, which may mean the motivation for residents to pursue such plans is reduced. Our concern here is that without careful thought, this could run counter to the Government’s ambition to support greater community decision making through the upcoming Devolution and Recovery White Paper.

We need to recognise the huge success story of neighbourhood planning, and make sure that the power for communities to prepare neighbourhood plans are maintained, and crucially that these plans will have enough breadth to pack the punch they need to transform places for the better. Neighbourhood plans were regarded suspiciously at the beginning as “charters for NIMBYism”.  This has not been the case, and communities have embraced new housing allocations, provided that they are able to make the decisions on the type and location of new housing development.  Studies consistently show that areas with neighbourhood plans in place are allocating more housing than those without. Crucially it is the housing that local people want.

We also need to protect the hard work of the more than 1,000 groups that have developed neighbourhoood plans and over 4 million volunteer hours that have gone into made plans and those plans currently in development. We must make sure these plans continue to be recognised and play their role in creating sustainable places which people are proud to call home.

2.    Providing dynamic accountability

Within the new reforms, the main opportunity for public input into permissions will be within the development of the design codes, guides and parameters within the plan-making stage.  Improving the quality and coverage of local plans is certainly a good objective in the white paper, and the commitment to improve community engagement at this stage of the planning process is welcome.  The detailed mechanisms for this will be critical to avoid tick box consultations which frustrate people and don’t achieve proper involvement.  However, a front loaded process of engagement and involvement could potentially squeeze out opportunities for local scrutiny, removing democratic oversight and opportunities for community involvement on an ongoing basis.  The findings of the Localism Commission were clear on the benefits of ongoing community involvement in decision making. The risk in this approach is of a backlash from residents who feel powerless to have a say on their local area over the long term.

We will be looking closely at these proposals and the impact they will have on local accountability and the ability for people to have their voices heard in the planning system. Crucially we will be calling for improved opportunities for dynamic accountability through ongoing community involvement, rather than a one-off and time limited moment of democracy.

3.    Delivering sustainable and thriving communities

Finally, these proposals should be judged on how the planning system can better support sustainable and thriving communities.

The planning system is not just about housing supply, but about maintaining and building sustainable communities where health, well being and environmental issues are considered at a strategic level.  Issues such as obesity, climate change mitigation and the future of our high streets are important parts of the planning system and need to be front and centre in any reforms.

In our response to the consultation, we will look at how opportunities for the planning system to bring forward much needed affordable housing is enhanced, including through community-led housing. This should involve a range of affordable housing products available to suit different needs. We will also be calling for the ability of planning to deliver sustainable and well-connected communities to be strengthened, with the right development in the right place.

Next steps:

The deadline for responses to the planning white paper is 29 October 2020. We will be in touch with members for feedback and views and will be using these three tests of community power to shape our response.