The Government’s latest overhaul of the planning system was launched with considerable fanfare in early August. The Planning for the Future White Paper is out for consultation until October and is billed as a package of proposals to reform the planning system in England.
But this is not your average common or garden reform. In typically ebullient style, the Prime Minister’s foreword describes how the current system is, in his view, no longer fit for purpose and proposes ‘Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’.
Hot on the coattails of the Government’s promise to ‘build back better’ from the Covid-derived recession, a new planning regime is clearly seen as a key instrument in unlocking investment, creating jobs and levelling up the nation’s – or England’s in this case – prosperity.
The headline-grabbing sections were the proposed reclassification of all land within local plans as either land for: Growth, where outline consent will be assumed for developments in line with the local plan; Renewal, which will be suitable for some development or, land designated as Protected where development will be restricted.
In addition, the replacement of Section 106 with an Infrastructure Levy, has been interpreted as making it much harder to deliver affordable housing.
Away from the headlines, there are some interesting observations which will impact community engagement methods and strategies.
Digital future for planning communications and community consultation?
Among the many gripes with the current system the white paper highlights, is the reliance on 20th Century technology which, in the view of government, burdens developers with repeated tasks. The future it sees builds on a technological approach that ‘harnesses the benefits which digitisation can bring [including] high-quality virtual simulation.’
In addition, the white paper envisages a ‘more engaging, equitable and effective system’ where technology will open up the system to greater community scrutiny than ever before.
The intention here is good but it’s worth reminding ourselves that not everybody is online and the risk of a rush to digital-only engagement, is to potentially disenfranchise a large section of society.
There have been many attempts to overhaul the system, perhaps most ambitiously by David Cameron’s government’s efforts to put communities at the centre of decision-making through localism. In that case, the secondary legislation never materialised.
Here, there is nowhere near the same commitment to community input although the role of the community in the development process remains watermarked within it.
Responses to the consultation will be interesting to judge and how much of its current ambition the white paper retains, will tell us if we really are on the cusp of a planning revolution.
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