These are the RTPI’s proposals for planning reform in England. We have also published a shorter version of this policy paper which summarises our main asks on plan making, control of development, Green Growth Boards, planning for climate change and nature recovery and planning with and for people.
We have elaborated on these themes below.
1. Plan making
1.1 Proper resourcing for local plans
1.2 Greater weight for local plan allocations
1.3 Fixed timescales for local plans
1.4 A new “duty to deliver”: bringing other spending programmes into alignment with local plans
1.5 Building on the digital transformation of planning in order to increase public engagement
• Proper resourcing for local plans
• Greater weight for local plan allocations
• Fixed timescales for local plans
• A new “duty to deliver”: bringing other spending programmes into alignment with local plans
• Building on the digital transformation of planning in order to increase public engagement
We have received estimates that developing a local plan can cost around £300,000 to £400,000 for developing an evidence base and consulting with the community, plus staff costs, costs for inspection, and legal fees. Local authority monitoring suggests the average spend on policy staff per LPA is now around £400,000 (having declined by 27% since 2009-10).
Government has said all local authorities are required to have an up to date local plan (in the current system) by 2023. In addition, with a new planning system, local authorities would also be having to produce new style plans which go into much greater detail. However, it has not made any additional funding available for this and it is not clear how this could be delivered in the current funding environment. Grants should be made available for local authorities on track to have an up to date local plan, perhaps with instalments after each completed stage (e.g. evidence base, draft plan, proposed submission plan, submission, adopted plan).
We estimate that the main costs of producing a local plan (staff, evidence base, community consultation and inspection) amount to around £1 million per authority over four years. If the Planning Delivery Fund provided 50% of these costs, that would amount to around £170 million.
The Government has proposed in its White Paper last year that:
“Sites annotated in the Local Plan under this [“growth”] category would have outline approval for development”
We see some merit in the Government’s proposals to make the local plan of greater weight. In certain contexts this is a valuable step forward. For too long local plans have not conferred the certainty that both communities and developers have a right to expect, given the amount of time and resources put into their preparation.
Perhaps the most egregious issue for local communities is schemes being permitted that the local plan says should be refused. However, there are other problems. Schemes’ quality can become chipped away in successive design iterations. This can be cramming more dwellings on the site , failing to deliver the promised infrastructure; and giving less weight to the quality and sustainability policies in a plan than securing housing numbers.
The Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence working with the RTPI recently produced a report on design value . It indicates how often the (high price paid for sites means that achieving high quality design has to take a back seat.
“I suppose the frustration of being an architect working for developers was [that] constantly the design would be eroded by the client and the quantity surveyors and the whole team trying to make it viable....” (Housebuilder-Designer interview)
This means that the resulting scheme as built bears little relation to the claims made at local plan examination about its merits.
On the other hand, developers can be frustrated when having worked hard to promote a site through the local plan system they find planning applications on it are turned down. Either way the local plan is brought into disrepute. Therefore, we consider that where a local plan allocates sites, this should be legally a grant of outline permission. However, for this to be workable, there needs to be much more detail than a simple red line on a map. Our proposals for Sustainable Development Commitments would provide the necessary detail.
A key challenge regarding making this happen is to fund collection of the relevant evidence. This may not be such a problem where there are developers willing to provide this themselves, but in areas of lower value this may not be forthcoming.
We propose that – as in Ireland – development plans are placed into a formal time scale. In Ireland, each planning authority is required to publish notice of its intention to review its plan, not later than four years after the making of their existing plan. A new plan must be made every six years (i.e. two years after this notice has been published). We think a close look at how the system works in Ireland, where it is operating under EU rules, would shed some light on whether this would work here.
A formal timescale would have the benefits of removing the repeated complaints from the Government that councils are too slow with plan making. It would possibly lower the costs of plan making and it would assist in public engagement, as people would come to know what to expect when. It may also assist in addressing the challenges of barriers to market entry.
However, we are in no doubt about the barriers to achieving faster and clearer progress on local plans. Plans take a long time currently due to a range of factors, which would need addressing in a concerted way. To bring this change about we would need all parts of the sector to pull together.
Part of this is action across the sector on proportionality of evidence. We think that, just as in a bidding process for a contract, it should be possible to set word limits on the amount of evidence used in support of cases in examinations in public. The limits would apply on both sides. This would require a clear statement from Ministers so that in any subsequent court cases the authority’s position on this is underwritten.
Local transport plans have been operating on this model for some time. We think that this model provides some basis for a local spatial plan. One key difference is that councils are strongly incentivised to write LTPs because they are also a bidding document. It seems logical that local spatial plans could work on the same principle, with MHCLG using them as the basis for grant allocations, which currently are administered through a whole range of disconnected funding sources e.g. Stronger Towns High Street and Homes England funding. In view of our findings on resources for local planning departments, such bids should also include an element for plan making costs.
The use of fixed timescales may benefit the Inspectorate, which is already used to operating that way for major infrastructure, and that regime has worn well. Some coordination could be used to help PINS structure its workload, so we would not expect that all the country would have same times only the same timings. It would require careful working around the timing of local elections, but these are already proving a complication for the planning process,
Planning plays a central role in coordinating the delivery of infrastructure to serve both new and existing development. In plan making it identifies infrastructure needs and provides a strategic overview; in development management it regulates, sets conditions and raises revenue for infrastructure; and through place-leadership it engages and co-ordinates across sectors and boundaries. However, there are clear challenges both for planners in managing these processes, and for infrastructure providers in engaging with planning frameworks.
Local Plans have a critical role to play in identifying clear and specific infrastructure priorities, which is a fundamental driver of effective delivery. The right infrastructure should support sustainable growth, contribute to legal carbon reduction targets, achieve environmental and economic progress more broadly, take account of rapid technological change, and prioritise good quality of life outcomes. In this way, prioritisation will provide practical steps towards delivering public sector policy goals, long-term visions for place, and short-term development ambitions.
However, there is a gap between infrastructure and planning, and demand for a more joined-up approach that proactively addresses the infrastructure needs of new development and the deficits of existing settlements alike. National decision-making is very complex, with fully 26 ministers having responsibility for it, with policy and funding split across multiple departments, executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies.
The National Audit Office (2019) in its report ‘Planning For New Homes’ highlighted the lack of requirement on national government to connect its plans to those plans of constituent local authorities:
“To create new homes and places for people to live, infrastructure such as transport, healthcare, schools and utilities must be in place, but this is difficult as government departments are not required to tie their investment strategies with local authorities’ infrastructure plans, creating uncertainty about how some infrastructure will be funded”.
This is compounded by the varied governance and funding arrangements at a sub-national and local level, and the complex organisational and investment arrangements and ownership patterns of infrastructure providers.
Delivering Local Plans requires infrastructure investment to support targets for growth and regeneration while delivering net zero and increasing resilience to risk. The best solutions increasingly cross traditional sectoral boundaries. Examples include networks of multifunctional green infrastructure which support flood mitigation, biodiversity, urban cooling and active travel, passivhaus buildings that alleviate the need for new energy capacity, and highway maintenance programmes that create opportunities to lay new utilities infrastructure and support healthy streets that encourage active travel.
An example of the difficulties posed by the failure to align programmes can be found in Somerset where a sudden and unexpected ruling by Natural England on water quality on the Somerset Levels has put the delivery of 11,000 homes at risk. Water treatment infrastructure investment programmes do not appear to be aligned with local plan making.
There needs to be alignment in vision between all those that have a role to play in infrastructure facilitation or delivery. There is a need for a more joined up place-based approach to growth, which ensures that infrastructure priorities are managed alongside spatial, economic and environmental priorities. One problem is that in many parts of the country local authorities are planning for new communities in places that then need to be supported by significant new infrastructure. This regrettably often means that investment is prioritised away from other areas (usually existing urban areas). This is a critical issue in some 2-tier areas where the planning and transport priorities are disconnected and based on a different set of guiding principles and outcomes. It is even more complex where there is also a mayor involved.
The National Infrastructure Commission has recommended that:
• Major strategic investments in energy and water be removed from the price control process, and opened up to competition. This could provide flexibility to respond to significant changes, such as major growth, and enable competition in delivering investment ahead of demand.
• There should be new statutory duties on the regulators, including net zero carbon, environmental impacts, quality and resilience - duties which are more closely aligned to the objectives of the planning system.
• There should be a new duty on ‘collaboration’ to ensure that investments which increase costs in a single sector, but provide wider benefits, actually take place.
• Regulators should “engage with metro mayors and local authorities to understand the likely impact on infrastructure planning of large, strategic developments… ...so that these can be planned for in future price control settlements”.
• Regulators should “specifically require companies to demonstrate how they have taken the strategic vision of the relevant metro mayors and local government (within their powers) into account where this has material impacts for network investment.”
We support these recommendations, and additionally call on central government to:
• Place a new Duty to Deliver on regulators to ensure collaboration between utility providers, transport organisations and planning authorities
• Clarify the evidence needed in a Local Plan to demonstrate a material impact on network investment, such as thresholds for significant levels of development in relation to identified infrastructure capacity issues
• Ensure that the assessment criteria used to promote competition in the provision of strategic enhancements to water and energy include clear requirements on collaboration with metro mayors, including data sharing and participation in coordination initiatives.
Digital transformation may offer the potential to improve both the evidence gathering aspect of local plans, and the level of public engagement. See below under planning with people.
• Sustainable Development Commitments: Adding Value to Plan Allocations
• Development management to be properly resourced – at the very least full cost recovery
A Sustainable Development Commitment should be made for each site that is allocated in a local plan. This would provide certainty over a number of detailed matters. We are running a research project into what such codes would look like. In addition to the “design” issues which the Government has focused on, a broad-based Code would need to cover matters such as :
• Achievement of Net Zero in buildings where not covered by Building Regulations
• Achievement of Net Zero in settlements (especially concerning vehicle use)
• Provision of Affordable Housing *
• Clear expectations of schemes’ contribution to nature recovery
• Provisions for resilience including flooding and fire
• Financing community services including particularly health and education
• How nature recovery and improvement of biodiversity will be delivered
* We have recently proposed that affordable housing should be removed from the planning system as a developer contribution, but in case that doesn’t happen it needs to be in here.
Depending on the kind of new planning system envisaged, these Commitments could take the place of the “policies” that currently constitute the bulk of local plan documents. They would need to be site specific but each SDC may bear some resemblances to neighbouring SDCs so the work involved can be reduced. There is a lot to learn from the long standing tradition in the planning profession of writing development briefs for sites.
The commitments would be tantamount to local planning authorities applying for permission on allocated sites (which they could already do as it happens). The creation of SDCs would require a large injection of resources into the local planning process. We would expect landowners to make major commitments to this work. Otherwise, their sites could not be allocated safely.
Our analysis of the financial situation in local planning departments revealed that in 2017-18, development management cost £614 million to run in England, Fees raised £430 million of that, or 70%. Fees should fund the whole of development management.
However the aggregate values conceal great variations. The “loss” on small planning applications is much greater than on large ones, some of which even bring in more fees than they cost. Furthermore repeated extensions of the concept of permitted development have considerably worsened the financial situation. Despite being called permitted development, this system is really “planning application lite”. Councils are still required to do a number of assessments of schemes (because in reality the use of PDR for such schemes is completely misguided) and for doing this work they have been paid as little as £75.
Aggregate values also conceal variations regionally. In prosperous parts of the country the development management service is supported by fees for pre application discussions. In other parts of the country these are either low or non-existent. The public throughout England deserve a decent development management service, not a postcode lottery.
• Green Growth Boards
• Local Planning Agencies
• Resources for Strategic Planning
We propose Green Growth Boards (GGBs) to bring about cross boundary cooperation for housing numbers and also the coordination of all the essential services necessary to support growth within an area, including health care, public health, transport, utilities, housing and environmental recovery.
Provision should be made for GGBs to:
• Help join the dots from the outset between environmental, transport, housing, water, energy, resource and health plans
• Help identify the best locations for development (Growth and Renewal areas) and protection, and to facilitate supporting infrastructure being in place on time
• Ensure plans that meet agreed criteria should be available to view as layers alongside environmental and social mapping on the shared geo-spatial platform
GGBs provide a response to the challenge raised in the Planning White Paper of needing to consider how ‘strategic cross-boundary issues, such as major infrastructure or strategic sites, can be adequately planned for, including the scale at which plans are best prepared in areas with significant strategic challenges’, but also how to weave the set of social and environmental objectives in to strategic infrastructure development.
Without creating an additional administrative layer, GGBs would bring together local authorities with other relevant organisations at a strategic scale which facilitates strategic infrastructure planning for example at combined authority level or through elected Mayoral areas or locally led Development Corporations.
Participating organisations would include local authorities, mayoral-combined authorities and Development Corporations where they exist, the water companies, Environment Agency, Natural England, Historic England, Public Health England, the NHS, Network Rail, Highways England, National Grid, the Local Economic Partnership, and Health and Wellbeing Boards.
In addition, it is necessary to include some links to the Department for Education which is influential locally despite being a national ministry. The planning of schools is probably the least strategic of all similar activities. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (on behalf of the DFE) provide both Local Authorities owned schools and ‘academies’ with funding on a case-by-case basis with from what I can see, very little linkages back to planning.
Rather than imposing prescriptive structure or timetable from the top - at least initially - LPAs could opt to come together under a GGB and agree what model and protocols to use to come to collective decisions quickly- perhaps from standard templates prepared by central government. Collaborating as a GGB could be incentivised through greater access to infrastructure investment. It could also help align Local Environment Improvement Plans, net gain and wider investment in the natural environment. There would be a duty on utilities, infrastructure providers and relevant statutory bodies to participate.
Strategic planning frameworks provide an opportunity for sharing of costs through jointly commissioning evidence bases which can be relied upon for the preparation of local plans. Areas like the south of Hampshire through the Partnership for South Hampshire (formerly Partnership for Urban South Hampshire) have a long-standing history of jointly produced evidence bases, which in isolation is laudable. However, whilst these authorities understand the level of unmet needs and other strategic issues due to there being no ‘stick’ for not addressing these issues there is little translation into individual local plans. The strategic infrastructure plans produced by county/Unitary councils in partnership with LEPs may offer an alternative with local plans required to meet a statutory test of being in conformity with the strategic infrastructure plans.
Green Growth Boards will need to relate to adjoining areas. We need to have robust spatial ‘building blocks’ for the growth boards to operate on and be able to work with those that have wider strategic planning responsibilities (e.g. sub-national transport bodies) and at a more local ‘strategic’ spatial scale. For example, Surrey has a new Place Ambition which is effectively a growth framework for aligning long term spatial, infrastructure, environment and economic priorities across local authorities and other public sector agencies. Whilst the core geography is ‘Surrey’ it also is capable of influencing growth across its borders e.g. in Heathrow, Gatwick, Blackwater Valley and with London generally. In the same way, Oxfordshire as a core strategic planning ‘building block’ needs to be able to influence other spatial priorities in the Arc as well as with closer neighbours in Reading and Swindon.
Concerns have been raised regarding difficulties in recruitment. There are various aspects to this:
1. Local authorities which are close together poach staff off each other leading to extended periods of vacancy and high turnover.
2. The planning service in many councils lacks clout with the head of service ranking low among peers.
3. Experts in conservation, ecology etc are in short supply and often lacking in individual councils. 4. The need to gear up for climate change planning requires cooperation across wider areas and new specialists.
5. It is anecdotally difficult to get entrants to the profession to work in small towns.
6. Career progression is now unusual: young planners have to organise their own promotion by moving employer – and often leaving the public sector to find employers more sympathetic to moving to chartered professional status. (However, some authorities are still putting staff onto degree courses and still have career grade posts. And RTPI Learning Partners are exhibiting good practice on moving staff forward through careers.
We propose the creation of larger planning teams based on suitable geographies such as counties or combined authorities. These could have the following results:
1. Provide promotion opportunities without the need to move employers
2. Reduce vacancies and churn, including by introducing a shared salary scale
3. Support talent development and succession planning within the public sector, potential at the very least to share learning and open up mentoring and moves across teams to develop a stronger middle management tier (if properly supported by senior managers)
4. More easily facilitate the creation of chief planner posts with influence
5. Ensure that sufficient economies of scale exist to support specialist staff
6. Support local authorities where there are major applications which might be the first a given small LPA has encountered
There are further advantages to local planning agencies including that they would:
• Support joint working for strategic planning across wider areas, overcoming the duty to cooperate problem.
• Enable easier government incentives for the delivery of homes across current district boundaries (and under bounded cities) with grants, and/or a new homes bonus/CIL or potential for fee sharing
• Facilitate sensible, and still local, discussion over other cross boundary issues which may appeal to ministers e.g. greenbelt, transport infrastructure
There is also much to be gained from closer partnership working between private and public sector e.g. the new Surrey Development Forum (and existing ones in Kent, Essex and East Sussex) aim to facilitate much closer working, sharing good practice etc.
There are two significant issues that need to be addressed in the resources debate. Firstly, dedicated resources for strategic planning activities are essential which recognise the wide range of skills needed i.e. not just professional planners and that it is a different function to local planning. Strategic planning must be seen as part of the day job and not something that can be done by existing local planning resources. Secondly, if we are to continue with a two-tier system in large parts of the country, we need to ensure that county councils are properly funded to support local planning and strategic planning activities. In many areas (whether statutory or non-statutory strategic planning is being managed), the (usually significant) support from the counties is being provided for free and where they have the expertise. This will become increasingly difficult to resource, regardless of the goodwill of the counties, as budgets become ever more squeezed to support essential core services.
• Climate change legal duty
• Stronger national policy on climate
• Local Environment Improvement Plans
The planning system must be aligned with existing legal obligations on climate change. Section 19(1A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 currently requires local plans to contain “policies designed to secure that the development and use of land in the local planning authority's area contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change”. Planning policy and decision-making must be legally obliged to contribute to the achievement of the carbon budgets and the 2050 ‘net zero’ target under the Climate Change Act 2008.
Smart energy and climate change should have equal status with the provision of housing, transport and economic growth in national policy, and enable local planning authorities to take appropriate action, including by setting targets which go beyond national standards . Policy should set clear metrics for carbon accounting, monitoring and reporting by Local Plans.
Government needs to demonstrate clearly that it is serious about using the planning system to secure “radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, minimise vulnerability and improve resilience” (NPPF paragraph 148). Currently this is hard to believe: the emphasis on housing delivery above almost all else, and all that has followed from that including short term considerations about viability (rather than costs to occupiers over a building’s lifetime / to the public purse). There is no implementation architecture on climate change to match that on housing delivery, no testing by the Planning Inspectorate of the soundness of plans on climate change and few supportive appeal decisions. This needs to change.
To do this we need an overarching framework for securing economic recovery post Covid-19, delivering housing numbers and building beautiful. Action on carbon reduction should be the first amongst equals in the planning process. National policy should set out a carbon reductions delivery test to ensure that all local authorities are accountable for any failure to achieve carbon reductions in new development the same way they are accountable for a failure to deliver housing targets. In short, it should be axiomatic that ‘only development which is fit to take its place in a net-zero emissions future in a changing climate should be permitted.
There are already many spatial instruments and plans for the environment, for example about a dozen listed in the annex. But they:
● treat the environment in silos not as systems treating connected issues like water availability and quality, soil quality, flood mitigation, biodiversity and habitats separately
● are normally administered and financed separately, with many single-issue streams of finance rather than in an integrated way, enabling coherent investment across multiple benefits.
● are often managed on short decision timeframes rather than to give long term stability reflecting the long term nature of environmental challenges.
● have notable gaps - in particular a clear basis to plan for nature’s recovery.
● are distant from and unaccountable to local people
● are separate from the 'real' plans, notably local development plans, meaning that the environmental dimension is often introduced late in the day as a source of conflict rather than giving developers and all others the strategic predictability to build solutions in at design stage.
● do not cater for new measures such as net gain and a new Environmental Land Management scheme which will only achieve value for money if supported by a coherent spatial framework for environmental improvement.
Collectively local activity and investment (for example housing, infrastructure, water management, land management, community and voluntary activity and public funding) will only contribute positively, efficiently and durably to the ambition to leave the environment in a better state, if there is a shared spatial framework for improving local environments. Local Nature Recovery Strategies provide the basis for a new approach. However, LNRSs risk introducing a new silo in an already piecemeal landscape of environmental plans, without providing clear direction for economic decision-making.
In the longer term the aim should be to get Local Nature Recovery Strategies to coherently cover the whole environment (including for example, water, flooding, soil and air quality) incorporating existing mechanisms into a coherent approach. They might then logically adopt a new title: Local Environment Improvement Plans. This long term aim would be most practically achieved by the SoS being required to commit to a review to develop a coherent environmental planning framework.
A coherent local environment improvement plan would develop a shared understanding of the environment including problems and opportunities, including :
● providing an up-to-date assessment of the current state of the environment, with data frequency appropriate to need
● showing where the environment is in favourable/unfavourable/etc state
● including modelling of trends where appropriate
● overlaying other activities/communities where relevant, helpful and feasible
● assessing causes and drivers for improvement
● showing designations and other spatial rules
And it would create a shared strategy to improve the environment by:
● collating local needs, expectations and preferences from the environment
● providing a basis for coherently marrying environmental needs with the place-based needs of other parts of government/society/economy
● showing opportunities for nature’s recovery and environmental improvements
● agreeing priorities for improvement
● agreeing plans, programmes and projects, where improvements need to be incorporated into other plans and arrangements for continuous improvement outside local environment plan cycles
● reporting on where collaboration is needed or measures from higher tiers of government
The resulting LEIP would not reproduce all the individual details of the absorbed plans: these would need retention in some form at working level. However the proposal would address many of the current problems arising from having multiple plans.
• Digital engagement fund
• National public awareness campaign
• Community engagement specialists
• Pop-up Planning shops
The Government has said it will :
Support local planning authorities to use digital tools to support a new civic engagement process for local plans and decision-making, making it easier for people to understand what is being proposed and its likely impact on them through visualisations and other digital approaches.
But it has not said what form this support will take. No commitments of funding have been made. By contrast the Scottish Government has committed £35 million over a five year programme.
The existing MHCLG Planning Innovation Fund has helped unlock innovations in digital planning, however only around £1 million has been awarded, split between 6 local authorities and one charity. A more ambitious fund could support the digital transformation of planning - saving money in the medium and long term and freeing up planners time to plan. The systematic change needed means this funding cannot be limited to authorities who are already innovating. Indeed, the Planning Delivery Grant between 2003-2007 played a crucial role in driving the initial digitisation of planning applications. Recent research on the value of investing in Digital Planning in Scotland has suggested that in quantifiable benefits alone, the economic benefits of investment in digital planning in Scotland could be in the range of £49-98 million over ten years. The average award in the Innovation stream was £138,000 over three years. To make this available to every authority would cost around £46 million. While local innovation is important, we would also encourage the government to suggest specific targets around in line with our Digital Planning Manifesto, for example, ensuring all documents are machine readable
Our proposals for a greater role for local plans in decision making (see above) would require a major cultural shift for England. For 70 years the whole of society has got accustomed to the current system of making planning applications. There is a high risk that communities will be disenfranchised from engaging in the planning system unless much greater involvement in local plans can be brought about.
A culture shift to front-loaded engagement cannot be made from the top down and it will need commitment to culture change across the built environment sector, from professionals to third sector to community groups and most importantly the public. Therefore we need a targeted public awareness campaign to raise awareness of the purpose and benefits of good planning and improve clarity on how, when and why people should engage.
Centrally funded positions of Community Planners in local authorities are needed to ensure a dedicated focus on hearing the views of communities and providing training on the technical and soft skills needed for participatory engagement particularly with hard to reach groups, including those without access to digital technology. They can also help facilitate community involvement in monitoring the local plan between reviews.
One way for us to ensure that digital engagement works for everyone, is to provide hands-on help for it. Many local planning authorities are accustomed to taking over empty shops or village halls for the duration of local plan consultation exercises. An extension of this would be for “shops” where experts help people use the consultation technology , including helping people log their comments. This is a model which works well for retail (e.g. the Apple store). We think it would ensure digital inclusion.
As the professional body for town planners in the UK and Ireland, the Royal Town Planning Institute comprises a mass of valuable expertise amongst its 26,000 members. We have drawn on this to write this paper. We consider that involving the professionals who make this system work in proposals to change it must be a great way forward.