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10/08/2020

Planning for the Future: These reforms will erode the link between planning and local democracy

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Community engagement / Shutterstock: 144653342

Far from increasing public involvement in planning, reforms outlined in the Planning for the Future white paper would reduce participation in key areas, argues Kate Gordon

There is so much wrong and so little right about these proposals it is hard to know where to start. As one commentator aptly described them, they are a dog's dinner. Friends of the Earth’s greatest concern by far is the proposal to axe a key stage of the planning process whereby a planning proposal is subject to local democratic, public scrutiny by way of a planning application decided by a planning committee.

These changes, were they to go ahead, would be bad news for local democracy and our environment and are no basis for a green and fair recovery. They would undermine the ability of local communities and councils to manage development and shape how their area develops in future.

Outside so-called 'protected areas', the system would appear to overwhelmingly favour development and landowner interests over those of local communities. This is because under the proposed new zonal system, land in renewal and growth areas would be subject to, respectively, an automatic permission in principle or presumption in favour of development.

Later detailed matters would be approved by a planning officer rather than a democratically elected planning committee. Under the reforms, local plans would be expected to set out rules, not policies, and would no longer set out general development policies tailored to local circumstances as policy would be set out at a national level.

“Outside so-called 'protected areas', the system would appear to overwhelmingly favour development and landowner interests over those of local communities”

The reforms emphasise greater public involvement in plan-making, with all local authorities to have a local plan in place within 30 months, which is sensible. However, there would no longer be a right for the public to participate in examinations in public — participation would be by invitation by the inspector only.  

Taken as a whole, and in conjunction with deregulatory changes, namely the extension of permitted development rights and further changes afoot as indicated by the white paper, the scope for public participation and community influence look to be significantly less under the proposed new system.

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) are key tools for environmental protection and contribute to the effective operation of our planning system in line with Aarhus principles. There is a risk that under the proposed reforms SEA and EIA will be lost or watered down in an effort to speed up planning.

The white paper proposes that detailed planning decisions would be delegated to planning officers where the principle of development has been established, "as detailed matters for consideration should be principally a matter for professional planning judgment".

“Local plans would be expected to set out rules, not policies, and would no longer set out general development policies tailored to local circumstances”

This is deeply concerning, as even when a development has outline planning permission, there is a role for the democratic process in providing oversight on how a development is taken forward and what form it takes – matters which can make a big difference to whether a development is acceptable to the community, or not.

An appetite is emerging among the wider public for doing things differently, with people noticing more wildlife, cleaner air and greater sense of community during lockdown and a desire for these things to continue in future. These reforms, were they taken forward, by obliterating a key stage of the planning process and weakening key tools like EIA, would make it harder to achieve these things.

Kate Gordon is senior planner with Friends of the Earth

Photo l Shutterstock

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