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Sustainable development must be at the heart of the planning system, organisations insist

Words: Laura Edgar
The heart of planning / iStock

For the planning system to have sustainable development at its core, legislation must be introduced to ensure it delivers equally on economic, social and environmental aims.

This is just one of 11 recommendations for the planning system set out in Our Joint Vision for Planning, which has been put together by a coalition of 18 organisations (see box) working in the housing, planning, transport, environmental, heritage and public health organisations.

Our Vision for Planning is a response to the government's planning white paper, Planning for the Future, published in August 2020.

The organisations launched the vision at a virtual event today (14 January) chaired by Amy Lamé, London City Hall’s night czar.

The 11 recommendations set out in Our Vision for Planning are:

  1. Be democratic and place local communities at the centre.
  2. Be plan-led and locally led.
  3. Have sustainable development at its heart
  4. Deliver enough quality affordable and social homes for rent to meet local needs.
  5. Tackle the biodiversity crisis.
  6. Help to tackle the climate emergency.
  7. Ensure beautiful, quality places that are in keeping with local character.
  8. Both protect and enhance local green spaces and heritage for the benefit of people and nature.
  9. Make best use of previously built-on land to maintain our green spaces and reduce dependency on cars.
  10. Encourage green and sustainable forms of transport.
  11. Be evidence-based.

Speaking at the launch, housing minister Christopher Pincher noted that there is “great deal” on which the government and the 18 organisations agree, such as the secretary of state’s “vision for a democratic planning system that delivers better outcomes in terms of design and the environment“.

“We all want our planning system to be more effective, and the plans that we are proposing support that ideal. We want plans to be made locally by councils, engaging local people – so that’s subject to democratic control – and we want them to be focused on the things that people are most concerned about. What should we be aware of, what sort of constraints exist, what the quality of development should be, what the infrastructure supporting it needs to be. And we want those plans to be more map-based, more visual. more digital and much more engaging.”

The government hopes to address the fact that for individual planning applications, “as little as two to 3 per cent of the local population gets involved”, a figure that falls to as low as 1 per cent of the local population when it comes to local plan-making, said the minister. “We need to do better than that.”

Pincher insisted that none of the government’s proposed reforms “will come at the price of our environment”.

Instead, it is acting to make the planning system more democratic and one that “generates better-designed homes in the right places where people need them”.

Pincher continued: “We want to make sure that we carry communities and stakeholders with us.”

Tom Fyans, deputy chief executive at countryside charity CPRE, said: “Today, we’re calling on the government to plan back better and work with us to develop a planning system that puts people, and tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, at its heart. We all deserve a home we can genuinely afford to live in, and to have a say in shaping the communities around us. And for over 70 years, a toolbox has been in place to make sure that can happen: the planning system. But as things stand, under the government’s current proposals, the opportunity to influence what happens and where in our communities would be halved.

“Before Christmas, the government announced a welcome revision of its housing numbers ‘algorithm’. However, this was only one small part of a range of potentially damaging proposals put forward by the government last year. That’s why we’re calling on ministers to take an equally pragmatic approach to improving policies relating to community voice, affordable homes and access to green spaces. Together, we can develop a planning system fit for the 21st century.”

What the speakers at the launch event said:

Paul Miner, head of land use and planning at CPRE:

“We want ministers to seriously consider all 11 recommendations in our joint vision and, and we think they will help create a gold standard planning system that will deliver sustainable development in the public interest.”

“I got the impression from what Christopher Pincher said is that the government understands the importance of communities feeding in [to the planning system], but where I think further work is needed is on the accountability elements. Ministers, yes, they want to promote good design but, time and again, we've seen that very good design aspirations and plans have not been delivered in practice, and we need to make sure that communities can not just influence the policy stage but also make sure that when developers bring forward detailed schemes they actually deliver them in practice. The reforms as they currently stand miss that because they would effectively cut local democracy in half, and require people to anticipate possibly years in advance what development proposals might affect them in the future.

“The main issue with building more housing is the type – and also the location, and at the moment we’re not building enough of the kinds of houses that people need. There’s a massive shortage of affordable housing in rural and in urban areas. What we think the government needs to look much more at, which it tended to skate over in the white paper, is how we can get local authorities playing much more of a lead role in delivering the kind of housing that people need.

“We also need to get the location right as well, because too many of the new housing estates that we’ve seen in the past 10 or so years have been in locations that are car-dependent. This is a massive problem. The government needs to get the location and the type right. Those are probably more important than design coding and guides, as welcome as those reforms are.”

Emma Marsh, director of the RSPB England:

“Last year tied with 2016 as the warmest in recorded history. Nature was in free-fall decline. The last decade has been a lost one for its recovery. The most recent state of nature report really sadly highlighted that 41 per cent of wildlife species in Great Britain are declining, and 15 per cent are at threat of extinction. Weakened protections for nature will impact species really widely. What a tragedy it would be if we lost much-loved species from the hedgehog to the curlew.

“Communities across England do not enjoy equal access to [nature], and access needs to be levelled up for all. The provision of nature... boosts the mental and physical health and wellbeing of communities, and our workforce. It provides essential homes and movement corridors for wildlife. It helps in adapting our towns and cities to climate change, ensuring they will be more liveable, more sustainable for the decades to come. Nature in the environment is not a ‘nice to have’, even in times such as this, but it provides our life support system.

“While the planning system has achieved much in enhancing and protecting our special places, be they built up, be they wild, nature has continued to decline. Our vision looks to a planning system that steps up and actively reverses this decline for the good of all of us... that tackles the twin climate and nature crises by better protecting species, and our most important habitats. We would propose that this is done by identifying highly protected areas within which there would be stronger protections for nature within the planning system, and nature recovery areas where currently degraded areas could be safeguarded to support nature’s recovery and be a real focus for uplift arising through the biodiversity net gain and environmental and management systems.”

According to Marsh, the vision moves “us on from the misplaced belief that environmental regulation is the cause of suppressed levels of housing construction, it is not. However, the implementation of environmental regulations could be improved, to make them more efficient and more proportionate while still protecting our precious natural assets”.

“Now is a pivotal time in addressing the nature and climate crises. We must get it right now. And that starts at home. A planning system fit to enable nature’s recovery and to tackle climate change need not act as a brake on recovering economically from Covid, if done well. If done badly, society, the environment and the economy will pay a high price over the years and decades to come.”

Joanna Averley, chief planner at the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG):

“As was announced just before Christmas, the intention is to bring forward a planning bill in this calendar year, so in 2021. We’re now absorbing the fantastic responses that we got from people across the industry and today’s vision for planning is a really important contribution to the thinking. We have, as you can imagine, a bit of a task to do as there were 44,000 responses... This will take a period of time to process. And then there are the other statutory processes that need to follow on from that. So it will be a couple of years before we see the new system hitting the ground, and local authorities operating in the new system.

“I have been incredibly struck by – at the moment it’s anecdotal evidence – how communities are engaging in planning through this pandemic, and the sort of changes we’ve all had in our digital engagement and our access to this session for example or participation in inquiries into local plans run by PINS at another level... The change in engagement enabled by digital processes and engagement... moving from a couple of 100 people to a couple of 1,000 people.”

Our Vision for Planning can be found here on the CPRE website.

Read more:

In October 2020, the RTPI responded to the consultation on Planning for the Future outlining a number of issues. The institute supports the concepts of growth and protected areas – with some reservations – but considers the concept of “renewal” areas to be too simplistic.

Furthermore, in order for the proposals in the white paper to deliver better outcomes, “significant investment” in local authority capacity and skills is needed.

Read more about the RTPI's ambition for the future of planning on the institute’s website.

Image credit | iStock