At the height of discussions on the draft the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2011 the RTPI convened a series of meeting with interested organisations to discuss planning guidance. At that point the question which was being debated in some quarters was ‘do we need any planning guidance at all?’ The consensus of those who attended and certainly all those RTPI members I spoke to at the time and since was a resounding ‘yes’. There was a ‘but’, however – about the state and extent of that guidance, and even a degree of confusion about exactly what was or was not ‘Government planning guidance’. At the time I wrote to the then minister Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, and at every opportunity after this we raised the need to address planning guidance with the Government.
Fast-forward to September 2012 and it was a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. Lord Matthew Taylor of Goss Moor approached me to discuss whether I would join a small team to review planning guidance for England and make recommendations to the minister Nick Boles MP on what should happen with it. My trustees were clear I should do this and were comfortable that it would be in a personal capacity rather than mandated by or as a representative of the Institute. To be frank I’m not sure that any of those who agreed to join Matthew in this task (Simon Marsh, Andrew Whitaker, and Cllr Mike Jones) had any more idea than me of the scale of the endeavour we were taking on. I suspect Keith Holland, who joined us from PINS, had more of an inkling. Twenty or so years in the field and there was so much material I had never seen or indeed heard of; there were also pieces of guidance that I thought were long gone but had still not been cancelled. Looking back over the past few months, I feel I’ve undertaken a Masters in planning guidance.
Our approach to the first phase was to not waste time debating definitions or process, and not to divide the task between us but to start by all reading it all. We asked for material grouped by subject rather than type of document, so for example we received all the material on enforcement in one go. It quickly became clear that the current cannon of guidance was out of date, hard to navigate, very extensive and not fit for purpose.
I lost count of the many and various explanations of what ‘planning’ is included in the preambles of so many of the documents. However, when we looked beyond the preambles, the special pleading and the case studies, we often found gems of useful guidance.
As we worked even more material was discovered. It was not all in digital form, although I took to an iPad as a result of the weight of the material. One subject such as Appeals could include as much as 26 pieces of guidance. Much of the material read like special pleading or as if it was written by special interest groups rather than government. Much of the material was also of its time, with out-of-date case studies and references to bodies or funding streams which no longer existed. I lost count of the many and various explanations of what ‘planning’ is included in the preambles of so many of the documents. However, when we looked beyond the preambles, the special pleading and the case studies, we often found gems of useful guidance. The low point was the weekend spent grappling with the myriad of guidance on compulsory purchase. (As a digression, my own view of what is needed here is statutory consolidation that goes well beyond a review of guidance). The more I read the more radical I felt, but it did not shake my view that government planning guidance is necessary.
Hence our recommendations for a fresh approach, our blunt assessment of individual documents and the heroic timetable we suggested. What we recommended was onerous and it needed to be done at pace. We said that in the future, planning practice guidance should be clear, accessible, up-to-date, and easily available on a web-based resource which should be actively managed by DCLG. In the period just before publication of Lord Taylor’s recommendations, I was certain that this was probably career-limiting, since we had recommended the culling or modification of so many documents covering subjects people rightly feel very passionate about. The almost universally-positive reaction was something of a (pleasant) surprise.
Phase two – and the message here is be careful what you recommend. After a consultation period the Government accepted almost all of our 18 recommendations. The minster commissioned the second phase of work; the construction of a guidance website and the re-writing and in some case writing of new planning practice guidance. At pace we were invited to act as a challenge panel in this next stage of the review to ensure that the draft guidance text met the tests of clarity, accessibility and up-to-dateness. The civil servants who had had a demanding time supporting us in phase one were now facing a much more daunting task as they had the pen and had to turn the idea into a reality. Our team was bolstered with John Rhodes, Steve Ingram and Paul Brown QC. The development of the guidance website by the Planning Portal happened simultaneously with the rewriting of guidance and thus an iterative process was required. Other departments who “owned guidance” had to join in the work.
The timetable was often brutal. We usually received draft material after close of play on Friday for comment by the following Monday or Tuesday. The website was in development right up to the Beta launch, so we could not be to be as thorough in checking the functionality of the web-based resource before the launch as we were with the words themselves.
The site reflects what we recommended and the minister asked for, in that the guidance is hosted on a single site, readily printable and date stamped with unique reference numbers for each question, and with the ability for users to sign-up for email notifications to alert them when changes are made. It links to the NPPF and other source material. It includes 38 'subjects' (new pieces of guidance include the duty to cooperate), with 13 subjects planned for later inclusion. I hope the clarity and accessibility of the resource and the opportunities for user feedback will ensure that guidance is kept in better order in future and is more responsive and transparent. No doubt there will be comments on individual bits of guidance, particularly the new areas. What they do is make clear where policy is at present. After the first couple of anxious days when colleagues tried to get onto the site, there has been the sort of interest we hoped for. At the time of writing, the site has had more than 16,300 unique visitors (separate individuals who have accessed the site), with a high average visit duration as well. Feedback at this stage is essential to make the site as good as it can be.
The work is not finished yet, and the review team was clear that there are more subject areas where guidance needs to go onto the site and in the new format. A clear set of management tools need to be developed to ensure that the guidance is kept up-to-date, that there are clear processes for this, that the style and approach is kept consistent as material is added or deleted, and that there are annual reviews going forward to ensure a coherent suite of guidance is maintained and user comments properly considered on a regular basis. We recommended this at both phases of the review because it is so important.
If I could wave my magic wand I would ensure a light is now shone on other planning related material wholly owned by other Whitehall departments to get this material as accessible, coherent, and up-to-date as possible. There is certainly a lot of it. Material of this sort was not included in our work since it is not formally part of planning, but it directly impacts planning and much of it is referenced in the planning guidance suite. We recommended a further specific review, but I suspect if the Department of Transport or Defra come knocking I might be busy.
Do try to find the time to look at the draft guidance and tell us what you think. The draft National Planning Practice Guidance beta website can be found at: http://planningguidance.planningportal.gov.uk/
You can also read Matthew Taylor and the review group’s reflections to the Minister on this stage of the review of planning guidance, and what more we believe remains to be done to achieve the ambition put forward in the report published last December.
About Trudi Elliott
Trudi Elliott CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. Since joining the Institute in 2011, Trudi has led the RTPI’s work on responding to the challenges of the Localism Act, neighbourhood planning, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and planning reform across the UK. Trudi was previously Director of the Government Office for the West Midlands, Chief Executive of Bridgnorth District Council, Chief Executive of West Midlands Regional Assembly and the West Midlands Local Government Association. She has also worked as a lawyer in both the public and private sectors.