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English Planning Reform – time to put the plan back into planning

Reform of the planning system has been a consistent priority of successive Governments. This time though the signals are that this could be a much more radical reform with the introduction of a zone-based system.

What is proposed?

Radical planning reform for England was a top priority for Government before the Covid-19 crisis. The “Planning for the Future[1] publication that accompanied the budget in March 2020 promised a “bold and ambitious” Planning White Paper to accelerate planning. While the White Paper may have been delayed due to Covid-19, it appears clear that planning reform remains firmly at the top of the agenda for No.10. Recent articles in the Sunday Times and Financial Times[2] cite proposals are being led by Robert Jenrick and Dominic Cummings.

The introduction of a zonal system is understood to be one of the most dramatic shifts in legislation whereby decisions over applications would be made by development corporations rather than councils. According to the Financial Times, the plans are being described by ministers as a “New Deal” for planning, which ministers hope "can be agreed in time for a wider economic announcement in July by Rishi Sunak"

A further priority for reform is the formalisation of design codes in England, so that “attractive” buildings can be sped through the planning process. According to Planning[3] this could be similar to the “as-of-rights” system used in the US. In this model a proposed development that complies with all applicable zoning codes does not require any special consideration from authorities.

This all follows the report in February of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC) chaired by the late Roger Scruton. Living with Beauty[4] identifies a number of far ranging priorities and policy recommendations to enhance the quality and design of buildings and spaces, including the need for a greater use of form-based codes. It is understood MHCLG is now advancing the preparation of a National Model Design Code, that will set the basis for a consistent approach to Design Codes across England, with an emphasis on the preparation of Codes by Local Authorities and Community Forums as part of Local Plans.

At the same time as the BBBBC report was launched, Policy Exchange published “Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century” by Jack Airey and Chris Doughty. This argues that the Government should be “resolute in a bold programme of planning reform”, with the report advocating the following major changes:

  • Ending detailed land use allocations in favour of a binary zonal land use system where land is either zoned for development, or non-development where development will be restricted. Within these zones no reference to specific land uses should be made, with market conditions determining how space is used in the development zone.

  • Redefining what a Local Plan should be, to be boiled down to a simple set of development control rules and a zonal map.

  • Rules-based development control in accordance with the new style local plans

  • Streamlining the role of local politicians – with the role of councilors focused only on setting local plan rules.

Policy Exchange followed up this work with the publication in June 2020 of “Planning Anew[5], a collection of essays on reform of the planning system for the 21st century by notable commentators that support the case for radical reform. At the launch of these essays, Housing Minister Robert Jenrick stated that the Government wanted to “rethink planning from first principles”, adding: “The time has come to speed up and simplify this country’s overly bureaucratic planning process.”

A planning reform commission has been convened by the Government including many of the contributors to the Policy Exchange and BBBBC work including Bridget Rosewell, the National Infrastructure Commissioner who recently headed a review into accelerating planning appeal inquiries; developer Sir Stuart Lipton; barrister Christopher Katkwoski; Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets and Co-Chair of BBBC; and Miles Gibson Head of UK research at CBRE. No MRTPI chartered planners are part of the commission. Meanwhile Jack Airey has been appointed as an Advisor to No.10.

Is first principles reform justified?

The Plan-led system as it currently operates is far from perfect. However, while the extent of reform required is debatable, there are a number of good reasons why a level of reform can be justified. These include:

Ability to plan strategically: Since the abolition of Regional Plans 10 years ago, there is no cross-boundary strategic planning across most of England, with local authorities responsible for assessing local needs. This results in further economic imbalances across England, and a focus on housing numbers, rather than infrastructure delivery and sustainable approaches to growth.

In lieu of “larger-than-local” strategic plans, Local Authorities now have had a “duty-to-cooperate” to resolve cross boundary issues, in particular the need to accommodate large scale growth and new communities that in practice has had varying degrees of success.

During recent months a series of Local Plan decisions have been made that have demonstrated issues in the ability for visionary strategic scale development to come forward, particular in cross-boundary situations. Most notably the North Essex Garden Communities that ruled 34,000 of 43,000 new homes to be developed by a locally-led Development Corporation were unjustified and unsound.

Design quality: While there are some great developments that are brought forward every year, many developments across England suffer from generic, often poor-quality urban design as the Living with Beauty report articulates. This view is supported by the National Housing Audit that found that 54% of recent large-scale developer led schemes were mediocre, 19% poor, 1% very poor, and 1 in 5 should have been refused planning consent[6].

This poor design is in part influenced by the Local Plan process in England, and the lack of creativity that can go into setting visions for the development of large scale communities.

The Royal Town Planning Institute has consistently identified the importance of planning in facilitating good quality development and set out its own priorities for planning reform in England in April 2020[7]. This recommends a greater focus for planning on 21st century issues, including the need for climate action and how technology can be better applied to the sector. It makes clear that what is needed is the retention of a better performing plan-led system that has a greater degree of strategic planning.

Is planning the problem?

The Local Government Association highlighted that nine in 10 planning applications are approved by Councils, while recent analysis shows more than a million homes consented over the last decade have not been built[8].

While many developers and politicians consistently complain that the system is slow, in many cases it is as a result of significant cutbacks in public sector planning over the past ten years. Spending on planning and housing has fallen dramatically over the past ten years, with planning taking a 59% negative hit (from £52 per person in 2009/10 to £21 per person in 2019/20[9].

The Local Plan system’s focus on housing numbers, and a process that rather than being “plan-led” is far more litigious and negotiated - whereby landowners and their agents are asked to put forward and make the case for their land to be allocated.

All this is in the context of the need to mitigate the fall-out from the Covid-19 crisis, as well as the Government declared Climate Emergency, requiring net zero emissions by 2050. Both of these huge issues point to a greater requirement for significant planning and joined up thinking between geographies and disciplines.

Our view: Time to put the plan back into planning

Prior + Partners advocate a renewed focus within the planning system to enable greater ambition, creativity and strategic thinking to plan making, within a genuinely “plan-led” system.

The Prior + Partners team has played a leading role in numerous best-practice schemes in the UK and other countries that demonstrate the importance of a strong plan-led approach that can be applied at different scales of development.

Spatial planning across scales

Based on this experience, the following should form the basis for a much more visionary approach to planning in England:

1. A national spatial plan for England – as advocated by the UK2070 Commission[10] should set out growth and infrastructure priorities, making important links to environmental capacity and climate change to assist in meeting net zero objectives. This would support the economic “levelling up” of regions and establish priorities for growth and infrastructure investment.

2. Effective strategic planning –10 years after the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies, the potential for a greater role for strategic planning is on the table, with the Government announcing in the Spring Budget that Plans for a Spatial Framework for the Oxford Cambridge Arc will be brought forward. There are also greater levels of strategic planning through recently-established combined authorities, which has been the norm in London since 2000.

This approach would support greater cooperation and certainty in areas requiring growth and regeneration, setting out much more joined up, co-ordinating thinking around growth and delivery proposals.

But importantly the approval of plans should focus on the ability and intent to deliver, and not necessarily on the details of viability, the predominant reason for the removal of two North Essex Garden Communities – surely a position that should never reasonably be expected at such an early stage of a development programme that will stretch over several decades.

3. A focus on town planning - In the country that invented the “science and art” of town planning over 100 years ago, very few “town plans” actually now get produced. Our view is that all towns and cities should have their own spatial plan that provides vision for places, and a joined-up strategy for how individual cities or towns should grow and regenerate.

Our recent work on a Masterplan for Aylesbury Garden Town with Alan Baxter Associates provides a blueprint for how we think all towns should be planned with much greater thinking around how growth can be managed and integrated[11].

This approach could compliment emerging proposals for “zoning” but goes further in terms of really understanding the interconnected nature of population, economy, hard and social infrastructure that make up individual places.

4. Masterplans and Master Developer Models to guide development - In our view the most successful recent examples of strategic development are those that have taken a “master-developer” approach where a single entity (public, private or JV/SPV) takes forward the development of a site. The master developer is responsible for developing the overall masterplan, and holding the vision for the overall development, taking on the role of curator, bringing forward infrastructure, streets and spaces, while house builders or individual developers bring forward individual phases or plots within the overarching masterplan framework.

A major concern if a US-style binary zoning system is taken forward is the ability for the market to provide the rich mix of land uses and activities that make great places. This has been shown to be achievable through a master-developer model.

If development zones are part of a new zonal system, they must be directed by good, flexible masterplans accompanied by design codes that ensure zoning is effective, and by effective master-developers. A range of precedent examples show how this can be brought forward, from Homes England’s Upton scheme in Northampton, an early adopter of “Design Codes” in the mid 2000s; the Olympic Park and Legacy development; to the exemplary Eddington scheme now partly implemented by the University of Cambridge.


Planning reform is a thorny issue for any Government, and practitioners and commentators alike lament the years of “tinkering” with the system. There is a lot to be said for planning reform if it can bring about visionary, creative plan making.

Reform will need well-resourced local authorities and developers, an upskilled built environment profession, and leadership by the public and private sectors to be successful in achieving its objectives.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

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