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Former housing minister calls for 'radical' reform of planning system

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The planning system is in need of “radical, root-and-branch” reform at the national level to counter a “widespread lack of trust and confidence” in the system, former housing and planning minister Nick Raynsford has told LGC.

In launching the Town & Country Planning Association’s interim report of planning in England, Mr Raynsford spoke of the need to counter “decades of tinkering” by central government to make the planning system more viable and effective.

Mr Raynsford, who chaired the TCPA’s review, said: “Planning in England is less effective than at any time in the post-war era because of deregulation, leading to an underfunded and deeply demoralised public planning service.”

To counter this issue Mr Raynsford’s review calls for the creation of a new national body for planning, similar to Homes England, to help link up local plans at a wider level. 

A simplified ’Spatial Planning Act’ would help to provide areas with greater clarity about what decisions should be made at neighbourhood, local, regional and national levels, the review says. It adds “modernised” development corporations could take on more demanding tasks such as monitoring population changes and assessing flood risk. 

“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,” said the review.

Mr Raynsford said there is a “lack of coherence” and joined-up working in the way planning operates, especially as only certain areas are covered by more strategic bodies such as combined authorities and regional transport bodies. The English planning system now has a “series of quite different planning regimes operating often with no contact with each other,” said Mr Raynsford.

By way of example, Mr Raynsford pointed to work to develop “major new transport corridors, particularly in the Oxford-Cambridge area” but added “there is no way their proposals and recommendations are going to mesh with the local plans of all the local authorities along the route.”

He added it was “extraordinary” that councils, strategic bodies and the government are essentially working “parallel” to each other.

This lack of coherence in the planning system is inspiring a “significant loss of public trust in planning”, said Mr Raynsford who added: “The public on the whole are taking an extremely pessimistic view and think that the planning system, rather than protecting the public interest, is actually a developer’s charter.”

The review calls for ways to increase public participation in planning processes.

Part of the problem is a level of under-funding in planning departments that other council services have not yet witnessed. In its latest report, published in March, the National Audit Office found there had been a 53% average decrease in spending on planning and development services from 2010-11 to 2016-17. In contrast, the NAO found there had been a 8% increase in spending on children’s services over the same period.

In setting out the need for a planning system that is “fit for purpose for the third decade of the twentieth century”, Mr Raynsford said he was calling for cross-party support to push forward “long-lasting” reform.

Mr Raynsford, who is also president of the TCPA, told LGC his reasons for the review was to craft a “more intelligent debate” on planning to build a “political consensus which will maintain momentum for planning reform”.

“We are coming forward with these propositions as a basis for a continued period of work and consultation,” Mr Raynsford said. “This is a dynamic process and it is not the end of the road. We want to build a degree of commitment towards a change that is sustainable and is not just tinkering with the system.”

Responding to the report John Acres, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said: “The report rightly recognises that planners in England are working in a less than optimal system – too complex, underfunded and struggling with economic forces outside its control. The RTPI welcomes the opportunity to take a thorough look at things and feed in our ideas on how to improve the system.

“But ultimately we should not pretend that there is a foolproof planning system, and starting afresh does no one any good. That is why the success of UK planners needs to be celebrated more and that investing in the people who are in the frontline shaping this success is a key priority.”

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