Richard Blyth, Head of Policy – Royal Town Planning Institute

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

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Planning needs to be about coordinating different investment streams in the private and public sector within places. Sadly at present there are barriers to achieving this, many of which have been erected by central government. For example, in economic development alone there are very many different funding streams all controlled centrally and with distinct criteria which require satisfying.

However, these funding streams are not brought together in places so that synergies between them can be exploited. And the current bidding culture for certain funding streams impacts on the ability for long-term planning, creates winners and losers and requires resourcing within local authorities such that the places most in need may be least able to apply.

A properly resourced and empowered planning system run in places, by places and for places would enable various funding sources to be drawn together to achieve outcomes. The Royal Town Planning Institute has commissioned a study of better ways to measure planning outcomes which more closely align to 21st century priorities.

It is not just coordination which is easier in localities. Both professional planners and elected councilors know more about their communities than ministers and officials in Whitehall. When I was in the civil service, I recall one minister saying “it doesn’t matter that civil servants don’t get outside London because Ministers represent constituencies outside”. With local knowledge it is possible to arrive at better plans.

A properly resourced and empowered planning system run in places, by places and for places would enable various funding sources to be drawn together to achieve outcomes.

Planning requires good data. As we have seen in the COVID crisis, it is vital for places to have good data on health. But this goes further. The best quality data on housing land supply is compiled locally. Climate adaptation and mitigation measures to improve resilience to climate impacts including flooding and overheating and targeted emissions reduction will need to be understood within the local context and tailored to meet specific needs. Potential improvements in “PlanTech” should make real time information on how places work – how energy is used, how people travel, even where they shop – so that plans for places can be developed quickly and responsively.

Urban and rural planning impinges on the lives of all of the community – not just property owners and developers, as sometimes seems to be said. This will become increasingly obvious as our built environment is retrofitted to support climate adaptation and mitigation measures which must be developed alongside engaged and informed local communities who are supportive of the behaviour change required. It is encouraging to see more innovative methods of engagement such as climate citizens’ assemblies being developed.

The value added by having a planning system is immense, something the RTPI is in the course of evaluating formally. Decisions around development can be quite detrimental to the amenity of residents of areas. This is not of itself a reason not to pursue schemes if they are clearly in the public interest.

Sadly in recent years the public interest aspect of some developments seems very difficult to discern, especially where local decisions have been overturned by national government. It is vital that local people are able to oversee decisions made which affect them. This does not need to be confined to opposing development: the role of development management in planning departments is to improve planning applications to make them deliver as much benefit to all as possible.

This would be stripped out by the removal of professionally-guided political democratic decision-making. Our environment is far too important to be run by “Computer says no”.

There are especial reasons why keeping planning local is important at present:

  1. COVID has exposed huge inequalities and the need for integrated strategies to address these. Sir Michael Marmot’s work on the wider determinants of health has shown how health is strongly determined by matters which are affected by planning. Our High Streets need reviving. The RTPI is supporting the High Streets Task Force in providing planning expertise to places which will get government support. But the revival of town centres needs to cover more than granting permission for changes of use or new buildings - or allowing this to happen without needing permission. We need integrated strategies for revival such as that developed by Cheltenham Borough Council which cover property ownership.
  2. Brexit will enable the UK to pursue different formal procedures to achieve high environmental outcomes. The Environment and Agriculture Bills envisage new funding streams from agricultural support and developer contributions to improving biodiversity. The best way to ensure these funds are directed in a joined-up manner, linked to the production of local plans, is for them to be guided by local environment plans which are aligned to the statutory local plans produced under the Town and Country Planning Act at present.

The RTPI has developed five priorities for what we think should go into a reformed planning system for England

  1. Invest in place.
  2. Refocus planning on 21st century issues.
  3. Display leadership on the digital transformation of planning.
  4. Provide a clear direction for strategic planning.
  5. Support a strong, plan-led system.

Rather than wind down good, evidence-based professionally-guided planning for places, let’s resource it properly and empower it to achieve great things. Great things for the economy, for the environment and for society.