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Robin Hambleton: Raynsford offers radical planning reform

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Local government will want to send out a warm welcome to a new report on planning in England.

Launched at the House of Lords on 20 November, the Raynsford review of planning in England is a bold and farsighted analysis that puts forward a set of imaginative proposals that would create a much more effective planning system.

The report, commissioned by the Town and Country Planning Association, stems from work carried out by an independent commission over the last eighteen months.

Chaired by Nick Raynsford, minister for planning and local government in the last Labour government, the commission shows how deregulation has undermined planning in England.

The report argues that the current “chaotic patchwork” of plans and the bewildering pace of change to the system has stopped people seeing locally elected councils as able to protect the public interest.

The evidence suggests that the economic gain of landowners and developers is being put ahead of the wellbeing of local communities, and planning has been reduced to a box-ticking role, akin to that of “traffic wardens for land”.

When introducing the report Mr Raynsford said: “We were not interested in tinkering with the planning system. We decided that we needed to go back to first principles.”

The study is evidence-based and there has been widespread consultation. An interim report was published in May 2018 and the final report attempts to take account of the feedback received.

It sets out detailed evidence to underpin 24 recommendations that will be of great interest to all those who care about local democracy in England.

The willingness to re-examine the purpose of planning and to explore radical change is refreshing. The objective is ambitious: “a simpler, fairer system which works for all sectors and in the public interest, with strong democratic accountability and in-built incentives to deliver greater certainty and consistency”.

In the short term the report calls for the government to immediately restrict permitted development, which allows the conversion of commercial buildings to residential units without any proper safeguards relating to housing quality.

This uncontrolled ‘office-to-resi’ boom is “creating the real and alarming prospect of a new generation of slums”. This irresponsible practice is signalling to unscrupulous developers that it is fine to create unsatisfactory homes lacking space and light.

The commission suggests that the organisations working in the planning and built environment sector should draw up a cross-sector compact on the values and direction of future reform of the English planning system.

The report provides many solid suggestions to enlighten such an effort. For example, the commission offers helpful ideas on how to develop fairer and more effective mechanisms for sharing the rise in land values brought about by development.

An effective people-centred planning system requires planners – both public and private –with the skills, enthusiasm and ethical commitment to make the system work. The report offers helpful suggestions on how to sustain and extend a culture of creative and visionary planning.

Missing, however, from this final section of the report is any discussion of how to develop the leadership skills of planners and, more broadly, the importance of developing strong place-based leadership in local governance. Without a strong boost to local leadership capacity and power these reforms will falter.

Limitation can be addressed as the ideas set out in this imaginative report are taken up and developed by stakeholders in local government, in local communities and in the public and private sector generally.

Robin Hambleton, emeritus professor of city leadership, the University of the West of England, and director, Urban Answers

His recent book is Leading the Inclusive City. For more information see:



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