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Planning for the Future or Planning for the Few?

by Andrew Martin, Senior Planner at Braintree District Council

A new task force, termed the Planning Commission, has recently been established by the Government as part of its ambition to explore a ‘first-principles’ reform of the planning system.[1] The exploration appears to be heavily influenced by the radical proposals set out in the Policy Exchange paper ‘Rethinking the Planning System’, which was published in January 2020.[2] The forthcoming reform is potentially to advocate the introduction of a zonal-based planning system in England.

This proposal represents a seismic shift away from the current system. Flexibility, judgement and discretion would potentially be lost to a binary system, as part of which development would either comply with a code or not. Such a wholesale change would be somewhat surprising, given the latest Planning White Paper, published in March 2020, proposed only a modest increase in the use of zonal tools.[3] A modest increase in the use of zonal tools is worlds apart from the pledge by Dominic Cummings to ‘take an axe to planning laws’.[4]

Another stand-out characteristic of the potential reform is the non-diverse composition of the team driving it forward. From what has been relayed in the press, the panel consists of high-profile individuals, nearly all over the age of 40, from a predominantly homogenous demographic.[5] Can it really be said that this is a group of individuals with an adequate diversity and representativeness to plan for the future? Why are the younger generation being entirely excluded from the conversations and decisions that will shape their lives in a profound way? Also, where are the professional planners in this conversation? I would challenge the Government to review its exclusive approach and instead encourage inclusion and engagement.

Returning to the current possible proposals for a new zonal system, this strategy stems from what has been a persistent trend of criticism towards the planning system and planners, with the prevailing discourse being that planning is bureaucratic, uncertain, complex, and generally bad news for economic growth.[6] Accordingly, the planning system has undergone more reforms than could possibly be imagined, with each new round attempting to write the wrongs of the preceding silver bullets.[7] Reforms have basically become cyclical and self-fulfilling.

A toxic cocktail of regular reforms and austerity cuts have left the planning system in a constant state of flux, which has eroded confidence in the planning system, and fuelled even more anguish against it.[8] It is perhaps no wonder that so many councils have struggled to adopt new local plans. After all, just as planners are beginning to adapt to change, a new groundbreaking reform is brought forward. I am not suggesting here that change is unwarranted, as this is not the case, but targeted and focussed changes to the current plan-led system should not be dismissed as an unsuitable option.

So, the next logical question is what should the changes be? Well, asking planners would be a good place to start. I imagine that fully resourcing planning departments, simplifying local plans and their adoption processes, returning to strategic and spatial planning, making greater use of LDOs and other existing zonal tools, and promoting a smarter use of existing and emerging technologies would all feature in the responses. I do though fail to see how a zonal style system, akin to that in the US, would be the solution to the current concerns surrounding delays, complexity and delivery and achieving the Government’s own carbon net zero goals.

As highlighted by Zack Simons, a planning barrister practicing at Landmark Chambers, in his very insightful #planoraks post, ‘Welcome to Euclide!’, zonal plans can be longer, older and more complex than our current local plans.[9] In addition, the transition to such a zonal system would in itself generate significant complexity, instability, delays and legal challenges. Should consideration not then be given to focussed changes as an alternative? Stability alongside targeted improvements would surely have a far more timely and desirable impact than the introduction of a rigid zonal system. It needs also to be recognised that planning permissions are only one strand in the string of delivery. We must take a holistic view and not just blame the planning system for the shortfall against housing targets.

As a final point, if the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is the importance of high-quality homes, access to green spaces, community infrastructure, equality, technology, and flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Do we really want to disrupt and abandon progress on these fronts by bringing forward a more complicated system that has no room for adaptation capacity, judgement and discretion? We are living at a pivotal time in history. Land is not an infinite resource and making the wrong decisions today could result in catastrophic and irreversible damage, particularly in light of the pressing crises of climate change, population growth, inequality, and health.


[1] Pickard, J. and Hammond, G., 2020. England’s planning system set for shake-up. Financial Times, 10 Jun. Available at:

[2] Policy Exchange, 2020. Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century. London: Policy Exchange. Available at:

[3] MHCLG, 2020, 2020. Planning for the future. London: HMSO. Available at:

[4] Swinford, S., 2020. I’ll take an axe to planning laws, says Dominic Cummings. The Times, 23 Jun. Available at:

[5] Pickard, J. and Hammond, G., 2020. England’s planning system set for shake-up. Financial Times, 10 Jun. Available at:

[6] Ball, M., 2009. Planning Delay and the Responsiveness of English Housing Supply. Urban Studies, 48 (2), pp. 349-362; HM Treasury, 2015. Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation. London: HMSO.

[7] Gunn, S. and Vigar, G., 2012. Reform processes and discretionary acting space in English planning practice, 1997-2010. The Town Planning Review, 83 (5), pp. 533-551.

[8] Ibid.; NAO, 2019. Planning for new homes. London: HMSO; TCPA, 2018. Planning 2020 – Final Report of the Raynsford Review of Planning in England. Available at:

[9] Simons, Z., 2020. In the zone #1 – Welcome to Euclid!. Available at:


Andrew Martin

Andrew is a Senior Planner at Braintree District Council, with a particular interest in major residential developments and planning law. Prior to joining Braintree District Council, he gained experience in the private sector, working at one of the UK’s largest housebuilders. He has also recently completed his Masters in Town Planning, for which he was awarded a Distinction, and has since been elected as a Licentiate Member of the RTPI. Going forward, he hopes to stand for the upcoming RTPI General Assembly elections which are taking place next month. 

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