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Planning under pressure

Stripped of resources and attacked as the problem rather than the solution, planning has rarely been under such pressure. In the first of a series about planning and its relationship with politics, David Blackman considers how things got to this point

It’s hard to recall a time when planning has been under as much pressure as it is today, at least since the modern system was founded by the post-Second World War Labour government.

Resources at local planning authorities get tighter by the year. Meanwhile, the very value of planning is increasingly under question by policymakers. 

Cliff Hague, emeritus professor of planning at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University, has been a keen observer of politics and planning since the late 1960s when he was a rookie planner. 

“The only equivalent was the early years of the Thatcher government when there was a lot of anxiety in the profession about enterprise zones and development corporations usurping the functions of local planning authorities.”

The former RTPI president is referring to the then Conservative government’s introduction of fast-track planning enterprise zones and development corporations, the most prominent of which oversaw the regeneration of East London’s docklands. Michael Heseltine, environment secretary at the time, famously summed up this approach with his remark that planners were “locking jobs up in filing cabinets”. 

"Even under centre-left governments, the debate around planning has still been about how to make the system more efficient and streamline it"

Dr Mike Harris, deputy head of policy and research at the RTPI, believes that it is too crude to see planner-bashing as a purely Tory indulgence.

Throughout the past three decades, the assumption in government about planning is that it has been “too bureaucratic and slow,” he says. “Even under centre-left governments, the debate around planning has still been about how to make the system more efficient and streamline it, that planning is part of the problem rather than critical to more and better development.” 

The New Labour governments saw tensions between the Treasury and the various departments that were successively responsible for planning. One notable flashpoint was consultancy McKinsey’s report, commissioned in the late 1990s, which branded planning as one of the key obstacles to improving the productivity of the UK economy.

But few would dispute that the pressure on the planning system has been ratcheted up since the return of the Conservatives to government in 2010.

“It wasn’t as intense as it is now,” says Hague. Tony Burton, executive chair of Sustainable Homes, says criticism of planning has become “more systemic across government”. 

Hugh Ellis, interim chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, recalls being recently told by a government policy adviser that planning was part of a post-war socialist conspiracy. 

This description is totally at odds with the history of how the Town and Country Planning Act came into being, he says: “The authors of the 1948 planning act were three card-carrying Conservatives and it was commissioned by the wartime Conservative government.”

Planning as an obstacle

Although the Thatcher government deregulated in certain areas, the past five years have seen a more full-fronted assault on the planning system. All local planning authorities’ ability to influence development have been curbed by a series of reforms, such as the easing of rules on office conversions and small sites to name just two. The queue of critics is headed by two think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) and the Institute of Economic Affairs, both of which are products of the late 1970s ideological ferment that helped to create the conditions for the Thatcher government.

Sam Bowman, executive director of the ASI, argues that Britain’s planning regime is holding back the country’s economy.

“We have very liberal labour market laws and reasonably flexible business regulations. The one thing we really don’t have is liberal laws about how we can use land. To a large extent the productivity problem in the UK can be attributed to the difficulties businesses have in converting buildings to new uses.”

“No builder with a consent for 500 homes on a site will start building 500 homes the next morning. Just reducing it to planners stopping things is a nonsense.”

He pins the blame for the country’s failure to deliver enough housing on planning, too.

“Planning is the policy instrument that is chiefly responsible for the housing crisis.” 

His prescription is to abolish the post-war Town and Country Planning Act, including the green belt. “It’s certainly a relic of a bygone era and doesn’t reflect the needs of today.” 

A planning system that boosts the UK’s competitiveness will become more important once the UK withdraws from the European Union, he adds: “If we are going to succeed after Brexit, planning is going to be one of the things that we are going to have to deal with.” 

But many in the planning world see this analysis, however popular it may be in government circles, as too simplistic. Harris describes the analysis of planning as “quite partial”. 

“It tends to be based on a very simple view of the market, which is that the more freedom markets are given, the more efficiently they will operate and deliver development. You can see how that’s not the case.” 

Hague agrees: “It’s a neo-classical model of how markets would be in equilibrium if the market was perfect, but we all know there isn’t a perfect market.” 

Although this vision may work in textbooks, he says it doesn’t take account of the practicalities of development, such as availability of materials and ensuring a sufficient pipeline of labour over the lifetime of a project. 

“No builder with a consent for 500 homes on a site will start building 500 homes the next morning. Just reducing it to planners stopping things is a nonsense.” 

Access to house purchase finance is another factor that the neo-classical economic models fail to factor in, says Burton: “If people can’t afford housing, increasing the supply of land won’t solve the problem.” 

The impact of reform

The evidence of the past few years backs up the case that planning reform alone cannot be the silver bullet for remedying the country’s housing undersupply. 

There has been an increase in the volume of planning consents since the introduction of reforms, notably the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012. Ministers have been left scratching their heads, though, by figures that have shown a widening mismatch between the number of consents delivered and the volume of homes actually built (see below). 


Planning services under pressure

46% Change in budgeted spend for planning and development in single-tier authorities and country councils from 2010-11 to 2013-14

24% Change in budgeted spend for planning and development in district councils from 2010-11 to 2013-14

4% Planning and development as a share of total local authority spend in 2010

14% Share of savings in local government from 2010-2014 – proportionally higher than any other service


Moreover, the number of houses built stubbornly refuses to go much above 140,000 a year, no matter what policies and reforms the government has introduced to date.

“We have had deregulation and a declining role for positive planning in bringing forward development and the housing crisis has just got worse,” says Harris. 

The ASI’s Bowman agrees. “The NPPF hasn’t had a substantial impact. There wasn’t any major uptick in building after the NPPF streamlined processes.”Speaking at the Bristol Planning Law and Policy conference in November, former Labour housing minister Nick Raynsford said the planning system was simply one part of a broad mix of forces that held back house building, however. 

Policies that have removed social housing from the mix, the caution of institutional investors, the domination of the market by a small number of volume house builders, a focus on homes for owner-occupation rather than a broad range of tenures, and a failure to invest in construction skills were also limiting house building, he said.

“The government’s job is to do things about the things it has control over. I wish it would do more.”

Quod founder John Rhodes, speaking at a Cornerstone Barristers planning day in early November, defended the NPPF for its “simplicity” but said ministers had undermined it with a swathe of policies at odds with the provisions of the NPPF itself. Proper enforcement of the NPPF would make a significant difference, he added.

One of the reasons why governments resort to planning reforms is that regulation is one of the few levers that a government can pull these days to increase housing supply, says Burton. “They can be seen to be doing something in a world where politicians have increasingly little power because the forces of change are not subject to national government or state intervention. They want to be seen pushing buttons even if the evidence shows that planning is marginal.”

The urge to ‘get something done’ is often compounded by most planning ministers’ desire to use the brief as a stepping-stone to more glamorous roles, observes Hague.

Not many MPs, with a few exceptions like Raynsford, enter the House of Commons with a burning ambition to hold what has traditionally been one of Whitehall’s backwater briefs, says Hague. “Most people in that portfolio are hoping to move into something else and like to be a bit macho and show they can deliver something. Most move on by the time the legislation they initiate is on the books.”

Bowman is unapologetic, though, about insisting that the government should make use of the levers at its command. “The government’s job is to do things about the things it has control over. I wish it would do more.”

The case for planning

Planning authorities haven’t always made the best case for the existing system, says Clive Betts, chair of the House of Commons communities and local government select committee. 

“Planners haven’t necessarily helped themselves in the years up to 2010 when there were resources around and so many local authorities didn’t get on with their local plans.” 

But the profession is entitled to feel that it has had a raw deal over the last few years, he says: “They are struggling with a lot of change and not many resources.” 

The planning profession has increasingly recognised though that it’s not just good enough to indulge in what Boris Johnson would no doubt label a ‘whingorama’. 

“Planning can strengthen markets for developers to produce better outcomes and better quality development”

Planners haven’t traditionally been that good at speaking up for themselves, says Betts: “Planners are sometimes not very good at coming forward and making a case that they are there to create a better world.”

This where the RTPI has recently stepped into with its programme of research designed to show the value of planning in helping to shape markets and promote growth. 

Harris says: “We think it’s important to build up an evidence base for policymakers and practitioners about the contribution planning can make.”

“Planning can strengthen markets for developers to produce better outcomes and better quality development,” he says, such as providing developers with certainty that they can build in a certain location. 

Planning can also cut the risks for developers embarking on projects in potentially marginal locations, such as by finding ways to lay on public transport that will make them more accessible. He gives as an example the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, an initiative by the city council that develops in parts of the UK’s second city that private developers normally shun. 
But getting this message across in the current political climate is an uphill struggle. But there may be hopeful signs. 

Both the RTPI’s chief executive Trudi Elliott (interviewed elsewhere in this issue) and the TCPA’s interim chief executive Hugh Ellis have hinted that positive noises about planning are coming out of Theresa May’s government. 

As this piece was written, both were hopeful that the forthcoming housing white paper would mark an advance in positive, planning-friendly policies to resolve the housing crisis. 

It would be a step forward, perhaps, but there is still a very long way to go before planning can be considered to be rehabilitated.