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Richard Blyth: Government must plan across wider areas and more public goods

Richard Blyth is the RTPI's Head of Policy Practice & Research

Welcome to the new political landscape, where planning is top of the headlines and planning policy issues are across the airwaves. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves MP, begun her first full week in post by announcing quick policy changes on planning including the restitution of housing targets for each local planning authority and suggesting that green belt boundaries might need to be reviewed.

The RTPI expressed concern last year when the previous government removed the targets that it left local authorities no incentive to get on with planning for housing. And as a short term measure it is appropriate to reinstate them to signal the important shift that will be needed to revitalise England’s planning system. But in the medium term planning ‘by spreadsheet’ from central government alone will not be enough to establish the best spatial distribution of new housing that can make the biggest impact on housing affordability.

Similarly, stronger expectations for councils to review their green belts is necessary, but alone is not sufficient to revitalise local planning. Ultimately, green belt policies are a tool for the management of whole urban agglomerations which may include many districts and affect many communities. They are not best planned at district level.

Cue a potentially new and significant force in planning: England’s 'metro’ and other regional mayors were invited to 10 Downing Street this week and while we don’t know if planning was included in that conversation, it is easy to see how it could have been. Alongside demonstrating that the new Government wishes to reset its relationship with Mayors it is also understood that the Deputy Prime Minister, Angela Rayner used the meeting to mark the beginning of the process of establishing Local Growth Plans across the country.

It seems to me that the Local Growth Plans should be aligned with strategic housing plans of the kind you would get if you returned to planning over wider areas. In our Planifesto we argue that metro mayors and new county combined authorities should be required to take and use planning powers to strengthen cooperation across housing market areas and during the election campaign we explained why this change could be transformational.

The RTPI will shortly be publishing the results of research into effective strategic planning conducted for us by the University of West of England that explores this potential further. It is therefore important that planners and politicians are engaged in conversations about which levels of local government are best suited to calculating and distributing housing needs, considering the strategic benefits of green belt alterations, and are able to set clear expectations about the level of development areas need to grow.

This more proactive and strategic role for planning to identify opportunities, create consensus and co-ordinate development can significantly help to kickstart economic growth and deliver on this new government’s mission. For voters expecting change, more confident strategic direction would help to fund supporting infrastructure alongside new homes and deliver better value for money from public and private investment.

It would involve some sticks, yes, but could be combined with carrots too. Accompanying fiscal measures, Homes England investment and National Wealth Fund investment could help to renew public finances by returning higher business rates that growing areas generate to local government and combined authorities as has been done with some success in the past.

In short, effective Mayor-led strategic planning would be a far cry from simply ‘granting permissions for housing’ that some campaigners and some corners of the press too often blindly see as the sole purpose of planning.  

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