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Tom Pemberton: An insight into one of London’s most dynamic and diverse boroughs

Tom Pemberton is Senior Planner at Montagu Evans LLP

As part of the RTPI’s Chief Planners of Tomorrow Initiative, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jane Custance, Director of Planning & Development at Newham to explore some of the current challenges and opportunities faced by local planning authorities in London.

I share some of our discussion and my thoughts below:

Community engagement and the next generation

Newham is the most diverse Borough in London and home to approximately 350,000 people, yet engagement in the planning process has historically been very low. Jane noted that for many in the Newham community, the first-time they engage in the planning process is when they are supporting or opposing a planning application. This doesn’t show planning in the best light nor demonstrate the breadth of benefits which planning can achieve.

It is clear that if we want to ensure communities have a greater say in the planning process and in how their local area is shaped, then increasing engagement and awareness is essential. One obvious way to do this is by starting consultation earlier, during the pre-application stages of the project. Indeed, this is now the recommended approach for development within the boundaries of Westminster City Council as part of the Council’s recently introduced ‘Early Community Engagement Guidance’. The principle is simple - getting people involved in the design process earlier should, in theory, lead to better planning outcomes later down the line.

But there is also more work to be done by developers, local authorities and the RTPI in promoting the planning profession to communities, particularly younger generations. As a member of the RTPI London’s Education sub-committee and having attended several career events at local schools, I am acutely aware of the lack of awareness amongst secondary-school aged pupils about what town planning is, the profession and how to pursue a career within the sector.  Without a new generation of young planners coming through and a broader awareness of planning within society, it will always be difficult to get the levels of engagement we should be aspiring towards.

It is therefore incumbent on us all to promote the profession more widely, which will lead, one hopes, to better engaged communities, increased resources, and ultimately, improved planning outcomes.

Resourcing and technical knowledge

It is no secret that for a long time, councils have suffered from a lack a lack of financial resource to properly invest in their planning departments. RTPI research just published found that investment by local authorities in planning departments reduced by 43% between 2009/10 to 2020/21, a trend which is stifling the planning system.

Despite this, Jane noted that there is growing pressure on Newham’s planning officers to have increased levels of technical expertise in more and more areas of the planning system. For example, the New London Plan requires Newham to now consider the urban greening credentials of a scheme and for GLA-referable applications, circular economy statements and whole life-cycle carbon assessments. Biodiversity Net Gain will also be introduced into the planning system as a requirement from 2023.

Jane made clear, however, that without adequate funding and specialist resourcing, it is very difficult, for Newham and other London local authorities to make informed judgements on such issues without GLA input.

The recently published Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill seeks to tackle the shortfall in funding through increasing planning application fees for major and minor planning applications by 35% and 25% respectively. Whether these extra funds will lead to wholescale improvements in resourcing or merely partially plug an existing funding gap is yet to be seen.

Planning application timescales

It is now commonplace amongst some boroughs for planning applications to be determined well beyond the statutory timescales. Latest data from the Planning Inspectorate (‘PINS’) also shows planning appeals taking significantly longer to determine than the PINS’ adopted targets.

Based on my discussions with Jane, it was evident that, save for lack of resources, one of the main issues in preventing applications being determined quickly is the number of invalid planning applications received by the Council. Better informing applicants of the nature and types of documents which need to be submitted as part of their application is therefore crucial. The length of time it takes for s106 legal agreements to sign was also raised, noting that in some cases, decision notices may take up to 12 months to be issued following a resolution to grant planning permission.

Whether the introduction of a new Infrastructure Levy (proposed under the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill) will remove the delays in signing s106 agreements is unknown. This could potentially add additional time to the pre-commencement stage of development, as developers seek to discharge a longer list of conditions which would have previously been included as obligations within a s106 agreement.

Government targets vs ‘on the ground’ reality

The recent local elections have also put into sharp focus the impact of politics on the planning system. The change to Labour of two flagship Conservative boroughs – Westminster and Wandsworth – will likely lead to significant changes in the direction within which planning decisions are taken and planning policies made within the boroughs.

Whilst at a local level, Labour almost maintained a 100% majority in Newham, Jane outlined the wider disconnect between central and local government when it comes to policy directives, such as housing delivery. For example, central government’s brushstroke approach to housing delivery targets doesn’t necessarily reflect what can be delivered on the ground.

In Newham for example, the south of the Borough is largely located within flood zone 3, causing significant pressure on the amount of developable land for housing. Reconciling the physical constraints of each local authority with government-imposed targets can therefore be challenging.

Final thoughts

I am very grateful to the RTPI for organising the Chief Planners of Tomorrow experience and a big thank you to Jane for the insight into her role in one of London’s most dynamic and diverse boroughs.


About Chief Planners of Tomorrow

Chief Planners of Tomorrow is a work-shadowing scheme offering RTPI Young Planners the chance to step into the shoes of a Chief Planning Officer for the day. Submissions are currently closed but will reopen again in 2023. 

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