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A new Prime Minister: planning reform’s last hurdle?

Joel Cohen is Senior Public Affairs Officer at the RTPI

One wouldn’t normally find planners and journalists in the same boat. Then Boris Johnson’s downfall, predicted but surprising, left both professions with more questions than answers. 

Journalists have long craved clarity about what ‘levelling up’ means beyond a potent post-Brexit call to arms that united voters in the north and south of England under a Conservative majority. The FT’s Seb Payne for example felt “this year’s hefty white paper was a blueprint for righting one of the country’s biggest wrongs” but others have been commenting on the policy’s hollowness. Whatever the definition, the policy now seems perilously open to re-interpretation under new leadership.   

The conundrum for planners is similar. The appointment of each new minister reminds us of the many, many politicians who’ve chopped and changed planning reform since 2017’s Housing White Paper. In the weeks after Johnson’s resignation it’s no wonder that planning twitter and our trade press have been alive with speculation about the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill’s future. Having got so close, planning reform seems – on the face of it – in peril.  

Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill future

But while the personalities may change, the politics and the practicalities have not. That is where the RTPI have been focusing our energies and rather than fan the flames, here’s what planners should know to help keep a cool head this summer: 

The remaining leadership candidate’s lacklustre enthusiasm for levelling up is widely noted but even the most skeptical commentators also observe that “Perhaps inconveniently for our candidates, voters are now convinced that levelling up is important.” Interestingly, the opposition party have also committed to levelling up: “If this is the moment when levelling up dies in the Tory party,” said Shadow Housing Secretary, Lisa Nandy MP, last Sunday “it must be the moment when Labour steps in. Not to ‘nick’ the idea but to embark on a programme of national renewal.” So in political terms the need to win any future general election for either party, let alone either candidate, means the policy is here to stay in some form.  

There are also procedural reasons why – though changes are more likely under new leadership – the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will continue its passage through parliament in September. The question for any new leader, hungry for quick wins and to reunite their party, is the extent and likely direction of these changes.  

Since the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill’s introduction in May, our policy and public affairs team have worked tirelessly to lead the conversation on planning reform. 

Rishi Sunak – once the UK’s first and only ever Parks Minister in MHCLG – has favoured reducing the cost of living and public service backlogs which could accelerate the planning reforms he has supported in office. In hustings-style debates he has also proposed to protect green belts, continue spending on brownfield regeneration, encourage urban densification, use modern methods of construction, support SME builders and tackle land banking.  

Liz Truss’s past antipathy towards planning has been tempered in recent debates with acknowledgement that her party needs a successful policy. As Prime Minister: levelling up would involve replacing centralised targets with low tax and low regulation ‘zones’ and she has talked about relaxing and simplifying planning rules, a far cry from bellicose calls to build on the green belt and ‘take on the NIMBYs’.   

It is also worth remembering two factors: first, even under the current regime the overall direction of planning reform is unclear and further detail has been promised in a forthcoming ‘prospectus’; second, as we’ve seen no Prime Minister governs alone and planning does have some parliamentary allies: leadership hopefuls Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt for example both recognised the vital role and resourcing of planners to improve Britain in their pitches to party members.  

Leading the conversation

This leaves the profession primed to build on the RTPI’s political engagements so far. Since the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill’s introduction in May, our policy and public affairs team have worked tirelessly to lead the conversation on planning reform.  

We’ve been clear with Government and MPs that some proposals need improvement and Ministers (old and new) have debated numerous substantive and probing amendments we’ve drafted, responding directly to the RTPI’s concerns, including:  

  • National Development Management Policies, where our calls for minimum standards of public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny have received cross-party support. Our request for exemptions from nationalised policies in areas taking up devolution have been an important feature of discussion.
  • Spatial Development Strategies, where the inclusion of combined authorities and county councils was raised was debated and Ministers heard our calls to better incentivise strategic planning. 
  • Local Plans, where we’ve been able to confirm that private utility companies will be required to engage with their development. 
  • Other issues like Digital Planning and Street Votes, where the need for sufficient resourcing, detail and safeguards have all been clearly articulated. 

Our response has been cited in the House of Commons Library’s authoritative briefings; we’ve delivered drop-in sessions for MPs and their researchers in Parliament; participated in Ministerial roundtables; secured oral evidence sessions attended by our CEO, Victoria Hills, available to watch here and here, which was even covered by BBC Radio 4. 

When legislative scrutiny resumes in September, we’ll continue to make the case for resourcing and recognising planning under a new leader and make progress with amendments we’ve drafted to remove unnecessary and bureaucratic examinations from the new Infrastructure Levy, include assessments of wider health and sustainable development outcomes in new Environmental Reports and add new clauses to re-instate virtual planning committees and introduce requirements for Chartered Chief Planning Officers.  

In the meantime, we’re calling on current and future Ministers to publish more detail about expected changes to the NPPF, the infrastructure levy, planning fee rises, environmental assessments and many other aspects of the bill as soon as possible. We’re also asking government give sufficient time for the sector to consult on those proposals.  

Members should look out for calls on the website and in the Members bulletins for opportunities to send their views on these issues to our policy staff so they can be considered by the England Policy Panel.   

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