Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Joel Cohen: The ups and downs of planning reform (so far)

In this blog, the RTPI’s Senior Public Affairs Officer, Joel Cohen, looks forward to the Lords vote on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and looks back at how the RTPI has worked to support planners and strengthen planning.  

Lords will enter their final stages of scrutinising the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill this week. Their ‘third reading’ debates will be an important moment deciding the future of England’s planning system but for the RTPI’s policy and public affairs teams they will also begin the culmination of over a year’s worth of work in Parliament.

We’ve pulled together some of the highlights of our planning reform journey on our National Planning Policy hub

Our response to the changing political landscape has spanned multiple governments, ministers, consultations, roundtables, briefings and media appearances and we’ve drawn on the full expertise of the profession and the full weight of the institute’s voice; here is what we have to show for it:

We’ve helped you to make sense of disparate information

We’ve spent a considerable amount of time at RTPI HQ helping our members understand what is changing and how:

  • We reviewed many years’ worth of policy announcements, commitments and documents in our planning reform tracker that has helped planners, journalists and policymakers to spot how reform priorities have changed or stalled over time.
  • We dived deep into the NPPF consultation over the Christmas break to bring RTPI members up to speed on those changes and capture your views quickly.
  • Our research has helped to improve politicians and the public’s understanding of our planning system and its challenges: our latest Interim State of the Profession findings have clearly shown the changing shape of the planning profession and our assessment of the decline in public expenditure for planning services are a go-to stat used by politicians, officials and stakeholders across the sector.

We’ve changed the government’s direction at crucial points and secured crucial investment in planner’s training

When an Infrastructure Levy was first announced by then Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick it was proposed as a single flat-rate tax. In public and behind-the-scenes we encouraged Ministers to reconsider and helped departmental officials to understand and evaluate the available alternatives. By the time this reached legislation a more variable rate system was proposed. In recent weeks, we’ve continued this effort, encouraging Ministers to reconsider how Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy might support communities in greater detail. Recent weeks have also shown the fruits of our labour convincing government to support more young people into planning careers.

We’ve secured considerable parliamentary support

This session has seen few weeks when the RTPI haven’t been in parliament discussing planning reform:

  • RTPI Chief Executive, Victoria Hills, and Head of Policy, Richard Blyth, were brought in as expert voices to explain how reforms will impact planning policy and decisions at the Bill Committee scrutinising legislation line-by-line and in several Select Committees in both houses. Their words have gone on to directly inform other parliamentarians.
  • Last year alone we discussed the Government’s proposals directly with more than 30 MPs, Lords and their staff across the political spectrum.
  • Our publications and commentary has been picked up and circulated across parliament through briefings of the House of Commons and House of Lords Library services.

Planning’s parliamentary champions have probed the Government and proposed our improvements

Parliamentarians have tried to “make the planning profession sexy again” and more:

  • In the Commons Shadow Ministers and other members of the Bill Committee tabled new clauses, amendments and probed the government on key planning issues including: Remote planning committees (NC69), Chief Planning Officers (NC70), National DM consultation (87), National DM devo exemptions (86 + 57 + 98), Spatial development strategies (103,112,113), Environmental Outcomes reports (173), Infrastructure providers (104-108) and digital planning (65,67,68) amongst others.
  • In the Lords, many of these proposals were picked up and championed in robust debates, including on: Virtual committees (158,310,312D), NDMP consultation (191A), Infra Levy (338+339) and Chief Planners (312B) amongst others.
  • Hansard is now full of positive quotes about the vital important of planners like these from:
    • Lord Foster of Bath (LD): “I want to place on record a huge tribute to the RTPI for the work it is doing to try to improve skills. It has its degree-level apprenticeship scheme, as I am sure the Minister is aware, and a number of other measures, but we are in a situation where it is now said that planners are like gold dust.”
    • Matthew Pennycook MP, Shadow Housing Minister (LAB): “We therefore have a situation in which the resources dedicated to planning within local planning authorities— never particularly high by international standards, even before 2010—have fallen dramatically as a result primarily of local authority belt-tightening in response to central Government funding cuts. The Bill does not provide an opportunity to resolve the wider problems of inadequate local authority funding, but we believe—I am certain this is not the only time that we will consider this issue—that any new burdens placed on local planning authorities by this legislation must be adequately resourced and that specific commitments to that end are put on the face of the Bill.”
    • Lord Lansley (Con): “we are acutely aware of the shortage of planners in local authority planning departments”

We’ve brought commentators on side and broadened our voice

Planners - to our ire - have been unduly derided by politicians and other contributors to our built environment in the past. Today there is greater recognition across Westminster, local government, development and social housing commentators that our planning system’s failings are institutional and regulatory, not individual and professional. You’ll also find unprecedented consensus that more resourcing is key to improving planning services and that more support for planner’s welfare is needed to make the system to work more effectively. Attitude and behaviour change takes a long time but these shifts have helped us to tackle these issues head on. Watch this space for more.

As our newly updated ‘Planning Reform: National Planning Policy’ hub shows, there is still a lot we need to achieve to improve the direction of government’s planning reforms. We can expect further parliamentary votes (into September) and future consultations that we’ll need to respond to.

We may be (reform) fatigued but RTPI members can at least be confident that the institute’s work is shaping the debate, representing planners and has made great strides to champion better planning so far. 

Back to top