Log in | Register

Law reform for a new Parliament

Houses of Parliament

Reform of the planning system is progressing, but needs to continue into the next Parliament, says Richard Harwood QC

Richard HarwoodThe planning system needs to secure the right result, in a manner acceptable to applicants and the public, taking no more cost and time than are necessary. That is what those who work in the system seek to do, yet a combination of well-intentioned reform and centralism has often conspired against it. A deluge of national guidance, overloaded local lists of planning documents and a national government desire to micro-manage were increasing brakes on getting things done in the Noughties.

Progress has been made more recently. There has been a recognition that because the internet makes it easy to publish thoughts, it does not mean that the government should do so. The hacking back of policy and guidance in the National Planning Policy Framework and Planning Practice Guidance makes planning policy comprehensible to councillors and the public for the first time in decades.

Localism is emerging from the ‘We’re free, so what do we do now?’ phase to local communities having to make the tough decisions about their environment. There has been a steady, and mostly low-profile, programme of legislative reform from the Department of Communities and Local Government: cutting back requirements for documentation with planning application; reforming appeal procedures; overhauling non-planning consents.

The programme of reform needs to continue into the next Parliament. Legislation in particular remains too complex. There are three areas of legislative reform that are required:

• Compulsory purchase and compensation law managed to skip the 20th century and now needs to go from the 1840s to the 2010s. Economic growth and fairness to claimants, including reducing the impact on displaced businesses, require removal of the archaic and the anomalous. Government should build on the Law Commission’s work to full-scale bills.

• Planning legislation needs to be decluttered. A blue pencil should be put through those provisions that make life more complicated than it need be.

• The law on ancient monuments is, frankly, historic. It needs an overhaul. At present the setting of a scheduled monument has less protection than that of a grade II listed building.

Broader policy issues arise in two other sectors. The first are various emergency measures that have been introduced to try to bring forward development with the minimum of delay or resurrect stalled schemes. There needs to be a debate as to whether these should be continued, expanded upon or left as temporary responses to the 2008 financial crisis.

The second is the Community Infrastructure Levy, which is still staggering into life across most of the country seven years after the Planning Act 2008 and shows all the signs of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Every tweak and exception made to it undermines the utility of the exercise. Its predecessors – the development charge, betterment levy and the development land tax – were ultimately put out of everyone’s misery.

The difficulties facing the development industry have mainly been financial – finding funders and buyers – and recreating their capacity following the job cuts of 2008 to 2009, but an overloaded planning system does not help. Reform needs to continue to enable decisions to be taken in the public interest, as speedily as is realistic and with fairness to all involved.

Richard Harwood OBE QC is a planning barrister at 39 Essex Chambers


  • Local input into design codes has been identified as a factor in the levelling up and regeneration bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech. The government’s head of architecture, Sarah Allan, tells Simon Wicks how the creation and use of design codes is taking shape in England

  • In the next few months, a small satellite will be propelled into orbit from the UK for the first time. Huw Morris reports on an embryonic industry that is already a strategic priority – and the planners helping to turn the UK into a place for space

  • Sophus zu Ermgassen is an ecological economist whose work analyses the costs and benefits of everything environmental, from rewilding to insulation. He tells Simon Wicks why we need to radically rethink our housebuilding model – and our economy

Email Newsletter Sign Up