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Planning for the future: our response

An aerial view of a housing development next a main road with green fields surrounding it, in Sussex.
A housing development in Sussex | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

In 2020 the Government launched a consultation on proposed reforms to the planning system, designed to streamline and modernise the planning process, focus more on design and sustainability, improve the system for developer contributions to infrastructure and ensure more land is available for development where needed.

Consultation response

We support the principle of an effective and proportionate planning system, that seeks to integrate and balance economic, social and environmental concerns, and we welcome the Government’s ambitions to do this.

However, we fundamentally disagree, as the 2020 White Paper suggests, that the planning system is the sole blocker to bringing forward housing delivery, growth and development in general.

'Build back better'

We agree with the Government that, following the pandemic, we must ‘build back better’. But long-term planning cannot be about short-term economic growth alone. The goal should be to build social, cultural and natural capital, drive a low carbon transition, and deliver climate resilience and mitigation alongside economic gain.

From short- to medium-term shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertain impact of EU exit on the economy, to longer-term nature and climate crises, the challenges we face as a nation are greater than ever, and we need a planning system that supports us in responding to these.

Opportunity for further change

We should also recognise the opportunity to use the planning system to help address inequalities and the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. The Covid-19 pandemic has not impacted everyone equally and has shown how those living without access to nature or culture have been particularly affected.

The nation’s goal should be to create more high quality, locally distinct places where everyone can enjoy nature-rich, green spaces on their doorstep, and access the local heritage and shared cultural spaces that help bring communities together.

Overall, there is little detail on how these proposals will support the Government to achieve its ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan, and what contribution the reforms will make towards tackling climate change. The planning system must work in tandem with other initiatives to solve the nature crisis and reduce carbon emissions, and more work is needed to show how this will be done.

Our key concerns with the White Paper

Lack of resource
Pressure on Local Planning Authorities is increasing in the context of a steadily declining planning workforce and cuts to key statutory consultees. Even the strongest reforms cannot deliver the desired outcomes without investment in the people and infrastructure that must operate the system in practice.
Land zoning
Categorising land into growth, recovery and protected zones would be a major change. The success of this depends on the availability of excellent up-front, easy-to-access data on environment, heritage and ecology which doesn’t currently exist. The Government needs to address this significant data gap – both now and in the long-term.
Undiscovered assets
Up-front data won’t be able to identify every asset, such as hidden archaeology or the discovery of important and endangered species. We therefore seek reassurances from Government that there will be clear mechanisms for considering these assets within the new system.
Cross-boundary issues
The ability to deal with strategic cross-boundary issues is one of the weaknesses of current system. The Duty to Cooperate has not generally been a success. We need to ensure in future that there is an effective mechanism for addressing environmental issues, including green infrastructure, at landscape, catchment and ecosystem scale.

Next steps

If delivered well, we do believe that the proposed reforms in the Planning for the Future paper could produce good planning outcomes and improve the quality of both our existing places and new developments.

Change at such a fundamental level carries huge risks and addressing those risks successfully will require significant attention to detail. As well as increased funding and new systems and processes, this will require a cultural shift around decision making and the way everyone engages with the planning system.

The next steps in shaping and developing these proposals will be crucial. In order to fully understand the implications and potential unintended consequences of these reforms, and to ensure that the right safeguards, processes and guidance are in place, there needs to be additional and detailed consultation with stakeholders.

Read the full report on the White Paper here.

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