New Government White Paper on Planning Reform

by Robert Wilson






New Government White Paper on Planning Reform

Where next for Town and Country Planning?

The Government’s Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said in October 2019: “We are going to be bringing forward a white paper on planning reforms. We’ll have to see what happens in the coming weeks to be able to say when we’ll be publishing that“,

In his speech Jenrick stated that he hoped the paper would deliver “a number of changes” to help overhaul a planning system which he described as “broken“.

We have inherited an incredibly complex and convoluted planning system which is a product of the last 75 years of our national life,” he said. “That does need radical reform.”

Since then commentators seem to expect the White Paper to emerge around the time of the budget in March 2020.

Also, the UK 2070 Commission published their Final Report in February 2020 and it makes a strong and important case for addressing what it calls the ‘deep-rooted spatial inequalities in the UK’. It is divided into two parts; the need for change and an agenda for scaling up change. Amongst its recommendations is a ’Shared Declaration of Intent’ for all parties to sign up to, supported by a ‘Ten Point Programme of Action’ to address amongst many other things the imperative of moving to a zero-carbon economy which threaten to exacerbate the spatial inequality in the UK.

All of this provides an opportunity to avoid the constant tinkering with the planning system so characteristic over the last two decades. However, it should not lose sight of the purpose of the planning profession.


The RTPI state that ‘Town planning makes better and more sustainable places for everyone to live, work and enjoy’. The Institute continues: ‘Chartered Town Planners manage these competing demands and uses for space. At the heart of their work, planners balance social, economic and environmental needs to shape the way that towns and cities grow and to create great communities for everyone’.

This is what the profession strives for but we find that this is often lost in practice at the ‘grass roots level’. Some claim that the statutory planning system and the planning service in local government is on its knees, underfunded, demoralised and lacking any direction and purpose. This is evidenced in the survey of planning professionals published by the RTPI in the report ‘A profession under pressure’, on 31st January 2020. This showed about 40% of public sector planners feel that their team or department is not valued by their employer. This contrasts with only 15% in the private sector.

The upcoming White Paper needs to rewrite the planning legislation to wipe away the numerous changes introduced over the last 20 years. Without this it we are left with what some would view as the near death of planning by a thousand cuts.

It is no coincidence that in January 2020 the Policy Exchange published a paper entitled ‘Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century’. This promotes a radical change to the planning system and whilst some of its reforms may be supported such as the need to streamline the role of local politicians, much of the review is limited and over simplified.

It also unreasonably lays the blame for the demise of the small and medium sized housebuilding firms and the determining of the possibilities of home ownership for the young at land use planning’s door.

This is oversimplified as there are many more significant factors such as the previously parlous lack of bank lending on smaller projects, the upfront costs of planning applications which disproportionately affects smaller sites, (for example, the need for desk top archaeological surveys, contaminated land surveys, ecological assessments, drainage and transport assessments, etc often running to tens of thousands of pounds) and a lack of a government national housing policy amongst others, which have caused these consequences.

Nevertheless, the upcoming White Paper should offer a complete revival of the town planning profession at a time when the original principles remain and can be augmented with the capability of the profession to help address the challenges of the growing disparity between regions of the UK and climate change. With fully resourced planning the profession can deliver the Government’s target of reaching carbon neutrality sooner than planned.

The planning function within local government has been catastrophically diminished in many English local authorities with consequential impact on the quality of service, production of new plans, inability to recruit experienced staff and general morale.

There is a need to restore the status of the planning professional within both local government but also within the construction industry. That status has been significantly eroded particularly in the former as a direct consequence of few planners achieving senior management positions in local authorities or being invited to join an authority’s Management Team. Furthermore, as planning is not perceived as a “front line service” the deep cuts made in local government spending have disproportionately been made to planning services.

As a profession we must revitalise our purpose and standing and raise the status of ‘Planners’ by re energising the need to deliver high quality development which benefits the community, the environment and our economy. We need to be more flexible to adapt to the increasing degrees and rates of change in our world. Planners can be visionary and manage change. This must be effectively pursued by the RTPI and other representative agencies as matter of urgency.

And if miracles happen then some of the emerging White Paper may respond along these lines. But if it doesn’t then it is up to our profession to make a mark and reclaim the original energy and recognition and respect of our founding fathers…… Patrick Geddes, Ebenezer Howard, Raymond Unwin, Patrick Abercrombie…..