Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Joel Cohen: To build or not to build? It’s our system that’s in question

Joel Cohen is Senior Public Affairs Officer at the RTPI

Throughout its journey in parliament the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (aka “the LURB”) hasn’t been as contentious as previous attempts at planning reform. As the RTPI have noted, proposals for a controversial zone-based system were ditched; and the current package of reforms has promised to deliver on the RTPI’s calls for a more robust and effective plan-led system. It has also been more ambitious, promising to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges and putting planners and planning powers at the heart of the Government’s long-term missions. It’s got room for improvement but there is much that planners can welcome to strengthen and modernise England’s planning system. 

As important as what’s in the Bill, is what the Bill’s progress has signalled: a change in the way we discuss long-term economic, environmental, and social problems based in tackling inequality; and finally thinking about regions and spatial challenges across government. There are also coming opportunities to disprove vocal critics of the profession who’ve too often wrongly blamed planners for the systemic issues, inefficiencies and national policies that constrain them and finally settling the political roadblocks that derailed Jenrick’s vision and have kept plans and projects in limbo since 2020.   

That was until backbench amendments and a war of words threatened (again) to defeat the Government, leading whips to delay this week’s scheduled debate on the Bill’s planning sections.

To borrow a phrase: planning is for the future - if only we could get past the present.

Theresa Villiers MP was first out of the gates introducing a package of amendments to shift the balance away from a presumption in favour of development (eroding housing targets, five-year land supply, presumptions in favour of development, introducing character tests) and strengthening planning restrictions (limiting what policies can be included in the NPPF, stopping enforcement on some land types and prioritising brownfield development and food production).

Perhaps informed by his brief stint in the role, former Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke MP has also been active tabling an amendment that binds his successors to permit onshore wind applications using planning’s national regulatory framework, the NPPF, which sets policy and guidance.

As the leading professional body advocating for planners and an important expert commentator on policy-making, it is the RTPI’s responsibility to point out when carts appear before (political) horses.  We already have one legal constraint on policy making in the form of biodiversity net gain.  The proper formulation of national planning policy as an integrated whole would be further compromised by the fettering of ministers’ decisions in favour of single-issue policies.

Prospective rebels have ample opportunities to engage the Levelling Up Secretary who holds existing powers to change the NPPF and influence policy decisions at a national level just as the RTPI have often encouraged MPs to do. Instead of making their case appropriately and proportionately, it is hard not to characterise both camps as hostage-takers: holding primary legislation – and the future of our planning system – to ransom as insurance against Government Ministers using their powers to make ‘the wrong’ decisions. Both housing and renewable energy need to be considered in the round, and as part of a joined-up set of national policies, not as single issues.

While Government intended the hiatus to be brief (possibly only a week), many planners will be understandably worried the delay may be longer given past experience.

For the RTPI it is clear we need to move past this stasis. As public affairs lead, I am working with our country’s best parliamentary advocates to make sure the integrity and stability of our planning system isn’t further weakened by the process of reform. I’m also keeping a track of planning reform’s progress publicly (which can be accessed here) so that we can continue holding Government and officials to account.

Our efforts have already resulted in numerous amendments tabled on the most important improvements to the Bill that aim to give communities a better say, make planning more robust and effective and drive better public service provision, health and environmental outcomes. For example, MPs have begun to support key amendments to reinstate permission for virtual planning committees and make statutory Chief Planning Officers.

We will continue to work on these and other priorities, encouraging the Bill’s passage by offering our expert view. In public we’ll shape the debate – as we did in The Sunday Times this weekend – and behind the scenes we’ll advise policymakers on the potential impact of government and backbench proposals.

But to secure the future of the profession, we also must keep building confidence in the power of planning to help residents and businesses every day and translate woolly government rhetoric into real projects that make more prosperous, sustainable and empowered communities.

That’s where the RTPI’s members come in: your stories showcase the impact planning makes in your communities and its time we reminded our followers how valuable that is! Please share your experiences on your own channels and through the RTPI’s Planning your world and new Planning for Tomorrow’s Environment campaigns. Just click on the link below to request a template.

While MPs have their air war, we should be fighting a good ground one.  

Back to top