Do we need a planning shake-up in the UK?

We live in a time when there is an acute shortage of housing. Combined with an unstoppable population increase and an infrastructure that is crumbling and out of date, the situation is getting worse. Something needs to change and it needs to change dramatically. And that change should happen in the planning departments across the country.

Planning is largely reactive. Planners respond to applications made by others. They sit in judgement of the plans and aspirations of others, increasingly hemmed in by the conflicting desires of those who see planning as a preservation society and those who seek to push forward into a new era of development and expansion.

Whatever decisions they make, they seem to be in the wrong. If they decide in favour of an applicant, they annoy the objectors. If they decide against, they are faced with an aggrieved applicant and, lately, a government frustrated that its housing targets can’t be met.

But how about turning all that on its head? How about making ‘planning’ the engine for development? How about empowering and requiring planning authorities to actively seek out and identify development opportunities in their area?

What if they were required to identify potential development sites and proactively promote their development by encouraging existing owners to seek consent for a particular use — or, in some cases, by moving to unilaterally grant a specific consent? Or even by using some new instrument, which formally required a use or class of development on a parcel or area of identified land — a bit like a stronger version of the current zoning system.

There’d be howls that planners would be seeking to take away land from unwilling owners and, indeed, in certain cases, there might be a justification for compulsory purchase powers on land that was, say, unused or neglected. In most cases, the financial windfall created by the simple act of granting such a consent or development class designation would result in its early or eventual uptake.

Any disputed consents, orders or compulsory purchase orders could be balanced by committees of elected members. These committees could be granted powers to decide disputed cases with a mandate to balance the rights, and wishes, of the beneficial owners with the common good. And none of this needs to conflict with the traditional role of the planners in deciding and arbitrating on applications made by others.

Redefining the Role of the Planners

Planners have been seeking a role for some time. For the first five decades of their existence they largely fell into the camp of the preservationists. For the last few decades they have been the reluctant accomplices to various governments’ requirements for development, often in the face of public opposition.

They have sought to expand their role through the adoption of causes such as the (now defunct) Code for Sustainable Homes, alongside various wildlife and archaeological regs — almost like a besieged entity trying to protect itself with satellite or forward bases from they often have to retreat.

Planning magazine is full of the laments of planners who question their role and their worth to the society that hires them. Objections to the government’s House and Planning Act 2016 revolved around the issue of possible ‘loss of control’ in the face of a perceived centralisation of the national government’s powers. Once again, planners are fearful that their role will be diminished or even extinguished. Disillusionment and staff shortages are rife in most planning departments.

These proposals, outlined above, would give them a new, expanded, and largely proactive role, and actually fulfil their name as ‘planners’, allowing them to plan the future direction, development and nature of the nation. We are part way towards the concept of proactive planning with Right to Build legislation, which requires local authorities to compile a register of would-be self-builders in their area and, having done so, identify land or opportunities to satisfy that demand within a set timescale.

What I am suggesting is simply an expansion of that role into the mainstream. After all, who better to do this than these trained professionals, backed by the facilities that local authorities can provide?

  • Rudolf Dullage

    Overused phrase “Elephant in the room” is still relevant.
    The above article makes some intelligent and valid points and I would support the idea of Planners being proactive; however, I fear this would take years to come about even if you could persuade the government (and Councils) to make the changes.
    The reason many Planners are frustrated is the relationship between Councillors and themselves. I have been at a Planning meeting when a senior planner was mauled by a Councillor for recommending approval on a site.
    It was quite uncalled for and this Planning Officer now finds it impossible to recommend any development on that particular site because she doesn’t feel able to to give her true opinion for fear of upsetting the Council members.
    I know the above is not a revelation but we still put up with this public bullying and if you ask any professional- the Committee meetings are akin to the Mad Hatters Tea Party.
    Democracy is always quoted when there is criticism of Councillors taking Planning decisions- but the truth is many are so specifically connected locally, not necessarily in a wholesome way, that they are influenced by the few to the detriment of the many. This not my definition of democracy.
    So the quick and simple solution is:
    Break the link with Planning members (Councillors) and allow senior Planners, who must declare any vested interests or friends and acquaintances that would exclude them from any particular case,- reduce the number of Councillors so you can use their monthly allowances to be invested in a fully scrutinised Planning department.
    Planners in my experience are reasonable and very professional but they are answerable to amateur politicians. Britain needs to have smaller builders/developers to create innovative small schemes all over the country and planners should be involved in overcoming problems. This will not happen quickly enough whilst the lunatics are running the asylum.

  • Jeremy Murfitt

    Some good points here and I have also witnessed some pretty poor behaviour at Planning Committee. A strong “Chair” is often required and planning officers who can voice their professional opinion without been hassled by the elected members. A few years back I suggested a 5% rule ( – in short simplify the whole planning process and allow every community to expand by 5% in dwelling numbers. That means all communities whatever designations they may have. The whole process of statutory consultees needs reform. I am involved in one project where we have been waiting for “Highways” to respond for over 12 months.

    Your comments about promoting sites David is an interesting one. At present this is 100% developer driven and that process can take many years. From identifying site to getting it allocated in a Core Strategy can take 5+ years, sometimes much longer. It requires commitment and can involve substantial costs and that is why it favours the big house builders.

    My final point is that local authorities have to far more open and transparent. Only last week I was asked to review a 30 acre site for a commercial development. Having reviewed the Core Strategy it was in my opinion there was less than 50/50 chance of being able to secure a permission. I decided to ring the planners to talk it through. I was told in no uncertain terms that the planning department don’t speak to anyone on a general planning enquiry. It took a few calls and “escalating” the matter to get someone to speak to me. We had a very productive call, I fully understood the issues and my opinion was re-inforced by the planning officer plus some other key information came to light. It wasn’t a site worth pursuing for the intended use.

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