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Joel Cohen: Will the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act change planning quickly enough?

Senior Public Affairs Officer, Joel Cohen, considers what has been achieved in planning reform legislation and the RTPI’s lobbying priorities for the future.

At this year’s Party Conferences we saw Conservative Ministers eager to get plans and projects moving. This is perhaps because they know what the polls are saying: the challenge of improving our imperfect planning system will be an important test of this Government’s performance.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 

The question now buzzing around Westminster is: will the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Act succeed quickly enough to turn the dial?

This is also a central question for the RTPI who’ve called for clarity and certainty about the direction of planning reforms long before parliamentarians spent 533 days debating this new legislation. 

When the Bill became an Act last week Government took a big step towards giving planners this detail. These measures have already been significantly influenced by the RTPI’s evidence, advocacy and lobbying for changes to the Bill but there is lots more for us to do.

How we've been making a difference

Because of our efforts new nationally-imposed Development Management Policies (NDMPs), that local planning authorities will use to assess the type, form, location and provision of development, must now need public consultation - in all but the most exceptional circumstances. They must now be written with regard to climate change before they are given legal weight above that of local plan policies. These are likely to include policies on flood mitigation and a list of potential other policies that RTPI-commissioned research suggests will need a clear scope and should set a floor – not a ceiling – to standards.

Online planning committee meetings are also likely to return as a result of our lobbying. New regulations can now be made to deliver hybrid council meetings that are fundamental to modernising and democratising planning and a long-standing ask of planners since the pandemic.

New enforcement measures have also been influenced by the RTPI’s National Association of Planning Enforcement network

What other reforms are in the pipeline?

We can also expect a raft of other reforms to reach implementation as previous Ministerial announcements make progress and new measures and regulations enabled by the Act take effect – potentially quickly according to legal experts. These include:

  • Distribution of this year’s backlog and skills funding and a new increase in planning fees to make council planning services better resourced and better prepared to implement future reforms;
  • Increasing the resources available to the Planning Inspectorate and Statutory Consultees and as a result, their involvement in NSIP and local plan-making activities;
  • The implementation of new Biodiversity Net Gain requirements that have rightly been pushed back to January 2024 to give councils more time to prepare;
  • The introduction of a new style of local plans, new timetables and alignment tests for plan-making and new Local Plan Commissioners designed to improve local plan speed, coverage and quality and accompanying new mandatory design codes and supplementary plans (replacing SPD documents);
  • Changes to environmental consideration in planning like Nutrient Pollution Standards and a new Environmental Outcomes Reports replacing current assessments of projects and plans that should still review alternative options and include public engagement at all stages;
  • Digital transformation in planning and new data about land ownership and second home ownership that could significantly improve the public and the profession’s understanding of how land is being used;
  • New experiments of Infrastructure Levies, Street Votes, Community Land Auctions and more will need careful consideration before they’re applied more broadly across England. 

The National Planning Policy Framework

The Act’s addition to the statute book also means that other immediate changes in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) can proceed according to Ministers. These policy updates would impact planning decisions and should heed the advice our profession gave to leave councils with effective policy tools to deliver more homes, infrastructure and regeneration appropriately.

The King's Speech

New additions to our planning system could also be suggested in the King’s Speech this week. We’d like to see the resourcing of planning departments and the planning workforce safeguarded for the future. We’d also like to see a continued focus on other planning-related issues that could increase the supply of homes to make brownfield development more viable, ease rental pressures and improve affordability in high pressure housing market areas.

Immediate action on nutrient neutrality would be welcome but now looks unlikely. This thorny example of a roadblock underlines why Government needs to look at reforms in the context of the system at large and listen to the RTPI and planners working across every part of it. As we finish the ‘beginning’ of planning reform and enter a new implementation phase, the profession and the RTPI must take action to help national and local decision-makers avoid potential pitfalls.

A three step approach 

The first step will be re-affirming our collective responsibility to act in the public interest and intention to lift the health, happiness and prosperity of communities across the country as high as reforms will allow.

The second will be to guide and advise Government effectively. Without our expertise and ‘on the ground’ insights, any one of these reforms could introduce as many new stumbling blocks in planning as they remove. As Chief Executive, Victoria Hills, noted in her immediate response to the Act, not all of these measures include the kinds of requirements and safeguards that the RTPI wanted but that doesn’t mean leaps forward aren’t possible or even that they’ll take a long time to get going.

The final step – and perhaps the most important – will be to manage expectations transparently and build common cause.

To achieve this the RTPI will be in close contact with Government to explain when planners are getting pulled in too many directions or where the ‘new burdens’ of reform look likely to increase planner workloads without proper support and training.  

For planners, businesses and community groups involved in our planning system, supporting our upcoming ‘World Town Planning Day’ campaign to recognise the importance of planners and counter online misinformation and harassment would be a great place to start. You can get involved with the campaign here.

This is a significant opportunity for quality, not just quick, planning. But its success depends on meaningful engagement amongst RTPI members, with Government and with the public we serve.

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