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Richard Blyth: New year, new reform?

Richard Blyth FRTPI is the RTPI’s Head of Policy, Practice and Research. This is the latest in a series of blog posts from Richard on the RTPI’s key asks of the government concerning its proposals for reform of the planning system.

What kind of new year resolution will our Secretary of State have? 

Maybe it would be to, “get planning reform done”, which could mean a Planning Bill during the Spring of this year. But, like Brexit, getting planning reform “done” depends on what is meant by “reform”.

The change of Secretary of State and the apparent backlash from Conservative back benchers suggests the reform would be less far reaching than the proposals published in the summer 2020. So, maybe the idea that the whole of England can be described as three zones is for the scrap heap. But on the other hand, maybe the idea of an Infrastructure Levy will go ahead. After all, the fact that we have been trying for 70 years to solve the problem of betterment doesn’t mean we should give up now.

It is always tempting to governments to reach for the legislative lever when they want to enact change. However, it is not clear that legislation is what is most needed to tackle difficulties with planning in England. As the Raynsford Review noted in 2018, one of the stand out characteristics of planning in England is how often it has been “reformed” compared to countries in continental Europe where statutory certainty is much higher and participants in the planning system know where they stand.

Clearly, something needs to be done about the chronic and now critical lack of funding for local authority planning departments.

Our recent research found that total expenditure on planning by local planning authorities is now just £900 million a year across England. More than half of this is recouped in income (mostly fees), meaning that the total net investment in planning in 2017-18 was just £400 million, or £1.2 million per local authority (2020-21 or 2021-22 may well show a lower figure).

This is fifty times less than local authority spending on housing welfare, and twenty times less than estimates of the additional uplift in land values which could be captured for the public during development.

As the 50 Shades of Planning blog has recently shown, simply spending money on planning will not undo 10 years of deep seated damage to job satisfaction. Some of the saddest comments on the blog refer to the difficulty planning staff have with council senior management and council members and severe problems with working from home.

There is also a legitimation crisis. As the TCPA showed, for many in the population, the problem with planning is not how difficult it is to get planning permission as an applicant, but how hard it is for ordinary people to be heard. Some feel that planning serves the interests of landowners and developers rather than the public.

There is no space to do justice to the truth of that statement (and to establish a means to do so is problematic); the issue here is that that is what many people feel, whether it is accurate or not. And this feeling is coming across in the way that the public treats planning professionals in the public service. For example, one submission to the 50 Shades of Planning blog read:

“Large sections of the public that we deal with in a planning service will openly express the view that planners are corrupt, in the pockets of developers or some other derogatory analysis.”

Taking advantage of the lull in government activity, we at the RTPI published Planning for a Better Future in March 2021. We stand by all those prescriptions, particularly building on the lockdown experience to use digital methods of engagement to bring as many people into the fold of planning as possible.

The RTPI is also working hard to secure the future pipeline of planners through outreach in schools and bringing the graduate apprenticeship scheme into full bloom this year with the first chartered planners expected to emerge from it. We also have a long-term programme to align the nature of the profession more closely with the communities it serves.

But this will all require a heightened commitment from the Government to ensure that there are sufficient and decent-paid jobs for people to enter in the public sector with ample opportunity for growth. Be sure to keep an eye on the RTPI this quarter as we prepare new ideas for local planning agencies to provide an alternative kind of public sector planning experience.

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