Review by former housing minister being presented in the Lords today

Nick Raynsford

A new review of the planning system by former housing minister Nick Raynsford has called on the government to scrap existing planning legislation.

Raynsford (pictured) claims the current system is “built on the back of assertion rather than evidence” and is leading to poor outcomes.

He said: “The planning system is no longer capable of shaping the places we need to secure people’s long-term health and wellbeing. We need a new approach with people at the heart of decisions and a system which meets the growing challenges of housing affordability, climate change and economic transformation.”

The Raynsford Review of Planning, which will present its interim findings at the House of Lords today, makes nine provisional recommendations for reforms to the planning system including giving the public a greater voice.

The report claims persistent changes to planning legislation have left the system powerless to defend the public interest, saying that it is now less effective than at any other time in the last 75 years.

Other recommendations include establishing a statutory definition of planning which would regulate development based on its potential for achieving “social, economic and cultural wellbeing” and setting a legal obligation for the government to plan for the needs of future generations.

The review, launched in partnership with the Town and Country Planning Association, has spoken to more than 1,000 people over the past 12 months.

Raynsford Review of Planning recommendations

Planning in the public interest

There is both an evidential and a principled justification for the regulation of land and the built environment. This justification is founded on the inability of market mechanisms alone to deliver a full range of public interest outcomes, and on the principled assumption that decisions with a lasting impact on people and places should be subject to democratic accountability that goes beyond the exercise of individual property rights.

Planning with a purpose

The statutory purpose of planning should be as follows:

The purpose of the planning system is to positively promote the spatial organisation of land in order to achieve long-term sustainable development. In the Planning Acts, ‘sustainable development’ means managing the use, development and protection of land, the built environment and natural resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing while sustaining the potential of future generations to meet their own needs.

A powerful, people-centred planning system

The planning system must be capable of dealing with the complex interrelationship between people and their environments. The scope of planning is therefore concerned not simply with land use, but with broader social, economic and environmental implications for people and places. Planning requires sufficient regulatory powers to deal with problems where they are found. This means, for example, the control of changes to both urban and rural areas which may play a crucial role in creating cohesive communities and building resilience to climate change. To be effective, these powers must be comprehensive and should relate, with minor exceptions, to the use and development of all land and property. This requires both the restoration of development management powers over the conversion of buildings to homes under permitted development rights and the creation, for the first time, of a genuinely plan-led system which can deliver co-ordination and certainty to developers and communities.

A new covenant for community participation

To be effective, planning must have public legitimacy. This legitimacy is under intense strain, with a broad disconnect between people and the wider planning system. Restoring legitimacy is a long-term project, requiring clarity on how far the citizen can positively participate in decisions.

This, in turn, is based on action in four areas:

• democratic renewal, including clarity on the balance between representative, direct and participative democracy;

• clear citizen rights, based on the provisions of the Aarhus Convention, so that people have a right to information, a right to participation, and a right to challenge – this will include exploring how civil rights in planning can be more evenly distributed;

• a significant new approach to helping communities to engage in the planning process, with a focus on engaging groups who do not currently have a voice, such as children and young people; and

• a new professional culture and skills set directed at engaging communities.

A new commitment to meeting people’s basic needs

While measures to increase public participation would improve the process of planning, they need to be accompanied by rights to basic outcomes which reflect the minimum standards that people can expect from planning. These outcome rights are an important balancing measure to ensure that the needs of those who may not have a voice in the planning process, including future generations, are reflected in the outcomes of decisions.

These rights might include:

• A right to a home;

• A right to basic living conditions to support people’s health and wellbeing, secured through minimum design standards which meet people’s needs throughout their lifetime; and

• A legal obligation to plan for the needs of future generations, through, for example, consideration of resource use.

Simplified planning law

The structure of English planning should be composed of four spatial scales (neighbourhood, local, regional, and national planning), supported by the deployment of modernised Development Corporations to deal with particularly demanding issues such as flood risk, economic renewal, and population change. While the majority of decisions should remain with local planning authorities, regional and sub-regional planning will require renewed clarity on which institutions will be planning at this scale and the remit and governance arrangements that they should have.

Alignment between the agencies of English planning

Investment in infrastructure needs to be co-ordinated with plans for housing as a shared ambition across the planning and development sector. The question is how to achieve such joint working. There is a significant opportunity to ensure better co-ordination between the existing public institutions that have a stake in the planning process – including the eight government departments with a stake in planning and their various agencies, such as the National Infrastructure Commission, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, and Homes England. Closer alignment of these bodies and clarity over their specific responsibilities would aid delivery.

A fairer way to share land values

The regulation of land generates substantial betterment values, created by the actions of public authorities but largely accruing as windfall gains to landowners. This can distort the planning system by incentivising speculation in land. It also leads to an unfair distribution of values in terms of meeting the costs of infrastructure and social facilities, and reduces opportunities for the long-term stewardship of community assets.

A new planning system should provide a more effective and fairer way of sharing land values, and the Review is exploring three related options:

• Measures specific to large-scale growth conducted by Development Corporations and local planning authorities;

• A reformed Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy process; and

• An element of betterment taxation, as part of capital gains tax, which should be directed towards regeneration in low-demand areas.

A new kind of creative and visionary planner

While a clear purpose and logical structures could do much to improve the planning system, the culture, skills and morale of planners are just as important. Planning is too often misrepresented as a reactive and negative profession, where the height of a planner’s power is saying no. Current planning practice too often irons out the imaginative skills most useful to civil society. Planners and planning need to communicate their creative and visionary ambition, not to impose upon communities, but to inspire action by offering real options for the future of places. This requires reform of the education, ethics and continuing professional development of planners, but above all it requires a system, supported by necessary resources, that values high-quality and inclusive outcomes as much as it values speed of performance.