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Nations and regions focus: The South East

Words: The Planner

A snapshot of planning in the South East, looking at key planning themes, major projects, skills requirements and RTPI activities in the region.

Natural and national interest

The South East is the most populous of the nine English regions, home to at least 8.5 million people at the time of the 2011 census. It covers a geographical area of 19,096 km2 (7,373 sq mi), wrapping around the west of London from Milton Keynes in the North, down to the South Coast cities of Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton and into Kent. The region is prosperous, being the second-largest regional economy in the UK after London valued at £177 billion in 2006. While much of this wealth is attributed to London, sub-regional economies are emerging and demonstrating strong growth. For example, the technology companies clustered along the M3 in Surrey and the M4 in Berkshire, and the new city Milton Keynes, consistently cited by the Centre for Cities as one of the fastest growing and ranked fourth for GVA and average weekly earnings.

The South East is a region of contrasts, from the South Downs to the Chiltern Hills, the Cotswolds and the Thames Valley. There are two national parks: the New Forest and the South Downs. The green belt covers about 117,928 hectares in total, comprising both the London Metropolitan Green Belt and the Oxford Green Belt. This amounts to just over 3,201 square kilometres or 83 per cent.

While it’s generally a prosperous region, there are also big inequalities. It has some of the highest house prices both in terms of the ability to buy as well as rental costs. The city of Brighton and Hove has the highest number of homeless people outside of London – about one in 69 people is homeless.


The high-profile Oxfordshire Joint Spatial Plan, agreed in November, saw Oxfordshire’s six councils agree to jointly deliver 100,000 homes in the region in exchange for more than £200m of government infrastructure funding. The plans are set to grow further, after new housing minister Kit Malthouse wrote to the councils requesting plans for new settlements to help meet a target of one million new homes in the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge by 2050.

Elsewhere, a report commissioned by Kent County Council has identified a £2bn funding gap for the infrastructure required to support its projected population increase of 40,000 people by 2031. According to the Kent and Medway Growth and Infrastructure Framework, "unprecedented funding challenges" have brought local services across the country to "breaking point". The 98-page report advocates "innovation and a place-based approach" in bridging the funding gap.

Factfile 2018 

Area: 7,373 square miles

Population: 8,635,000 (making it the UK’s most heavily populated region outside of London)

Counties: Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, West Sussex

Major population centres:

  • Brighton/Worthing/Littlehampton  (c474,000)
  • Portsmouth  (c461,000)
  • Southampton  (c377,000)
  • Reading (318,000)
  • Milton Keynes - c230,000
  • Maidstone  (c168,000)
  • TC - SE Region (RIP) (9,080,800),
  • Medway Towns (277,600)

Parliamentary constitutencies: 84 (Conservative 72,  Labour 8, Liberal Democrat 2, Green 1 and the Speaker)

Planning authorities: 8 county councils, 11 unitary authorities, 55 district councils, 2 national parks

In the pipeline

1. Phase 2 East West Rail

A strategic rail link between East Anglia and central, southern and western England. Phase 2, Bicester to Bedford, will see upgrades along the route and the reinstatement of a ‘mothballed’ section of railway.






2. Thames Lower Crossing

With the Dartford Crossing at capacity, the government has chosen a 13-mile expressway linking the M25 with an expanded A2 east of Gravesend – to include a 3.5 km tunnel under the Thames.






3. Ebbsfleet Garden City

The Ebbsfleet Development Corporation is bringing forward up to 15,000 homes and 30,000 new jobs on former industrial or quarry land between Dartford and Gravesend around Ebbsfleet International Station. The challenge will be to deliver homes and jobs alongside ample green space to warrant the ‘garden’ epithet.



Insight: do-it-yourself at graven hill

Emily Shaw MRTPI is principal planning officer for Cherwell District Council Graven Hill, 241 hectares of former Ministry of Defence land on the southern edge of Bicester in Oxfordshire, is one of the UK’s largest custom and self-build sites. Development is governed by a local development order ensuring fast-track permission for applications that comply with an approved masterplan and design code.

“We’ve got approved detailed parameter plans which set building heights and sizes for each of the plots within different ‘character areas’,” says Shaw. “The two main areas with the highest design control are the village centre and the rural lanes – the more visible areas.

“Elsewhere in other character areas there’s more freedom, with no restrictions for example on materials or boundary treatment. But the parameters are still there in respect to things like building heights and where in the plot they have to build.

“Generally people are happy to work within the parameters. The local development order (LDO) has been a useful tool in simplifying the process while giving flexibility.

“It’s very different from dealing with a standard market housing development. Handling the different planning documents that relate to the site [such as outline planning conditions, reserved matters, the design code and masterplan] and applying these through the LDO is complex and challenging.

“But I can see more of this happening. We’ve learned lots in applying the LDO to this scale and type of development. It’s been intriguing to see the wide range of designs we’ve had people coming in with, when you think they had so much flexibility. We have had some very modern innovative designs but also ones where people have chosen a very standard market housing type.

“It’s been very worthwhile. It’s given me a number of opportunities to speak on the subject – I’ve really enjoyed sharing that knowledge and learning with others.” www.gravenhill.co.uk

Recent successes

1.  Depot, Lewes Community Screen

The winner of the 2017 RTPI South East Award for Planning Excellence, Depot is a former brewery in a prominent location sensitively transformed into a community arts venue – with a cinema, restaurant and film education facilities.

2. Bransgore Affordable Housing Scheme

The 2017 South East Award for Excellence in Delivering Housing is a scheme to build and let two affordable homes to local families in the New Forest National Park. It was made possible by a new legal framework allowing the National Park  to construct the homes and become a landlord.

3. Newport Pagnell Neighbourhood Plan

The Buckinghamshire town’s neighbourhood plan embraced growth by allocating housing well above that required by the core strategy – thus addressing community concerns about community infrastructure.

Coming up

1. Housing Matters 6 September, Reading

Joint RTPI/ CIH Planning for Housing Network afternoon event that invites speakers including Janice Morphet to give views on challenges and potential solutions to the housing crisis.

2. Development Management – South East

12 September, Ashford, Kent An afternoon update on recent policy and current best practice, as well as the opportunity to hear from those involved in different areas of the development management process.

3. Planning and Infrastructure

21 September, Brighton Sue Percy, chief executive of Chartered Institute of Highways & Transportation, chairs an afternoon panel discussion considering policy, best practice and challenges of infrastructure delivery in the South East.


Photos | Highways England, Shutterstock