Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor announced in Liverpool recently that an incoming Labour government would overhaul the UK’s “antiquated planning system” in order to “get Britain building again”. The implication being that Britain’s planning rules had been preserved in aspic since Attlee effectively nationalised planning in 1947 with the Town and Country Planning Act, and this was stifling growth.
Whilst I am not an expert on planning (or anything else for that matter) it seems to me the planning system has been going through relentless ‘reform’ for decades and this is at least part of the problem. It is a mark of political failure.
Transforming local communities
“There was a time when we led the way in planning for communities. Think about how our ancestors centuries ago built cities – living thriving communities like Bath, Edinburgh and York. We just seem to have lost our way. You can’t transform communities overnight. But I’m determined to make changes.”
That wasn’t Reeves, it was John Prescott, the deputy PM, speaking to Labour’s annual conference in 2003. And what about this:
“These reforms will help to deliver enough of the right homes in the right places and will do that by promoting development that is beautiful, that comes with the right infrastructure, that is done democratically with local communities rather than to them, that protects and improves our environment, and that leaves us with better neighbourhoods than before.”
Hard to guess isn’t it? It could have been almost any minister in the last 30 years, but it was in fact a statement by Gove in the Commons at the end of 2022, after 12 years of Conservative ‘reform’.
How it all started
Attlee’s 1947 act, among other things, required local authorities to produce and maintain up to date development plans, which they still do. To help them in that task, the government provides ‘guidance’ about what ministers want to see happening.
In the late 1980s this was being done via a series of planning policy guidance notes called PPGs. I have no idea what went on before that but under John Major we had a whole raft of these notes. Here is the list as it was in 1997:
There were 21 in total (10 and 11 are missing for some reason). It’s very hard now to find any on the web and although at least one of them, PPG15 Planning and the Historic Environment, ran to 100 pages, most, I think, were a bit less but still substantial documents. They were published by the Department of the Environment (DoE).
When Labour came into office in 1997, the DoE became the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), merging Environment, Transport and Local Government into one giant ministry under Prescott. DETR was abolished in 2002 and planning followed Prescott into the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That only survived until 2006 when Tony Blair created the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), moving planning with it.
Labour planning reforms 2003
Prescott, after his conference speech in October 2003, had set about scrapping all the PPGs and replacing them with planning policy statements (PPSs). Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly and others carried on ‘reforming’ and by 2010 when Labour was kicked out of office, they had managed to publish 13 PPSs which were these:
Again, quite hard to dig out of the archives now since they’ve all been withdrawn but PPS11 on Regional Spatial Strategies ran to 126 pages, while PPS12 fills 108. PPS3 dealing with Housing, was 30 pages and PPS4, Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth, was 37, as was PPS6 Planning for Town Centres.
Bear in mind these were not static documents and were subject to updates and amendments.
Conservative reforms 2010
Cameron and the Conservatives swept into office in May 2010 with the help of Nick Clegg and the LibDems, inheriting this half-finished process. The Conservative manifesto said:
“Britain’s complex and unwieldy planning system has long been cited as a significant barrier to growth and wealth creation. We will create a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system. We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.”
The coalition agreement didn’t materially change the Conservative commitment to ‘reform’ the planning system and Nick Boles, the Conservative planning minister, quickly took an axe to all 13 of the latest PPSs and the nine remaining PPGs (2, 8, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 24), replacing them with a much simplified and drastically slimmed down National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012.
By March 2014 he was telling MPs:
“We have already taken a series of steps to cut unnecessary red tape, such as the streamlined National Planning Policy Framework reducing 1,000 pages of planning guidance to less than 50, revoking the last administration’s bureaucratic regional strategies and extending permitted development rights to make it easier to get empty and under-used buildings back into public use.”
In fact the initial 2012 NPPF was actually 65 pages in total and even the latest version is still just 76 pages.
Did it help? Possibly. But note that even as Boles was speaking in the House of Commons, his department had already started to issue more ‘guidance’ and has been adding to it every year since. Currently there are now 61 planning practice guidance categories on this government website with hundreds of additional pages.
And to all that we can also add national policy statements (NPS), setting out government policy on different types of national infrastructure. There are now 12 such NPSs:
Collectively they weigh in at 989 pages. The first six come under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the next three under Transport and Defra is responsible for the last 3.
Note that most of this applies to England. Northern Ireland still uses PPSs and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have their own systems.
In January 2018, as part of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle, the DCLG was renamed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which Boris Johnson later renamed again, this time as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, with Michael Gove in charge.
Coming full circle
In short, over a period of 30 years or so we have come almost full circle and we are back to 1993 and the world of PPGs with masses of guidance, but via eight different departments, goodness knows how many planning ministers and still with both government and opposition pledging yet more reform.
So, although local communities are in theory allowed to make their own planning decisions, the government insists on providing detailed guidance to ensure they don’t make the ‘wrong’ choices. If they do, the developer can appeal to the planning inspectorate and a helpful inquiry will then recommend to a minister that local objections be overridden.
And note that these constantly evolving planning rules aren’t legally binding, don’t ban anything outright and ‘permit’ very little in any case. It all comes down to balance, with ‘weight’ being given to the need for development against the wishes of those who prefer the status quo. It is a recipe for endless argument and delay.
In my opinion, it would be far better either to make the ‘guidance’ much more prescriptive or give Local Planning Authorities the power to make their own binding decisions unencumbered by thousands of pages of ministerial advice. It almost doesn’t matter which. At the moment we have the worst of all possible worlds.
Repeating past mistakes
Finally, while researching this article I came across a couple of interesting things. The first is a blog post from 2021 about housing and suggesting that Gove is repeating all of Prescott’s greatest planning policy mistakes.
Andrew Lainton describes the ‘Gove-Prescott Cycle’ whereby the government announces planning reform, then the opposition denounces it as a developer’s charter; CPRE [The Countryside Charity] opposes it, as does the Daily Telegraph, publishing photographs of concreting of the Green Belt – mostly of sites tens or hundreds of miles outside the Green Belt.
The government then U-turns, announces a ‘brownfield first’ policy after which housing completion figures ‘fall off a cliff’. Next the Treasury panics and announces a review, worried about overheating of the housing market and a cooling construction industry. The government announces more ‘planning reform’ and the cycle begins again.
There is a lot of truth in this.
Could planning be privatised?
Second is an even more worrying suggestion. As I said at the start, planning was effectively nationalised in 1947. It’s one of the few things the government hasn’t sold off for money and you perhaps thought nobody would consider such a thing. Don’t be so sure.
In 2004 John Corkindale produced a paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs at 55 Tufton Street, proposing precisely that: “Our principal proposal is for the privatisation of land development rights.”
Another round of ineffective reforms and this sort of idea may well crop up again. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
You have been warned.