In this article, we look at the recent growth in the planning sector and how planning processes are being reformed nationwide. We heard from Victoria Hills’, CEO, Royal Town Planning Institute to find out more.
The Planning Boom
Last year, planning received more mainstream media attention than it had done for some time. This is largely due to the government whitepaper ‘Planning for the Future’.
In the process of drawing up the widespread reforms in the whitepaper, the government hosted over 40,000 planning consultations which provided many proposals from those in the field.
Another driver behind the expanded discussion around planning has been the pandemic. With millions of people spending more time than ever in the confines of their own homes, issues stemming from health and welfare in relation to housing and the local area have put a spotlight on planning.
This is not only due to much housing being inadequate to support the lives we led in lockdown, but also parks and green spaces which were desperately needed to support local communities also garnered a lot of attention.
Planning is also a key part of the government’s ‘green recovery’ plan that is being formulated, as well as forming part of their broader and longstanding ‘levelling up’ agenda.
There is also a need for planning to allow the economy to pivot and restructure in response to the UK leaving the European Union.
From Physical to Digital
As with almost all other sectors, in response to the pandemic planning had to switch to a digital operation.
This was in part due to new legislation that allowed planning committees to meet virtually which was previously not legally permitted.
This fast-tracked the plans for a better digital engagement program whereby communities were attending these sessions in greater numbers because they were more easily accessible online and virtually.
As many English citizens turned to ‘staycations’, many others chose to use the money saved from the lack of holidaying to spend on home improvements. This drove a huge boom in the number of planning applications across the country.
Construction, development, and planning were some of the few sectors to continue and even grow during the pandemic. They were able to shift and react quickly allowing them to remain operational, then deal with the growth in demand for their services.
The government has set out bold reforms in planning with potentially very significant effects throughout the sector.
For the past 70 years England has had a discretionary system, meaning that through a local plan there are overarching rules but each planning application is assessed on a case by case basis.
This has allowed flexibility and enabled innovation, however it has arguably also caused delays and confusion.
Some of the proposals constitute a move away from the discretionary system towards a rules-based system with stricter regulatory measures more similar to those seen in Europe and North America.
This system divides regions into a zonal map, with regulations dictating what can happen in each zone. If the application conforms with the rules then permission to build will be granted.
The planning proposals can be split into three distinct areas:
This area of proposals is concerned with conservation, greenbelt land, sites of special scientific interest and similar. This area is the least affected by the new proposals and will broadly remain the same as is now.
These areas will be focused around major urban expansion, in the region of 10,000 new homes, any projects like new garden villages or garden towns fall under these proposals.
They require master planning and for all intents and purposes will remain the same as is the case now.
Renewal areas include brownfield sites, suburban areas, and ultimately anywhere that isn’t newly built upon or a conservation site.
This area is where the largest changes have been proposed.
Challenges with the Renewal Proposals
The whitepaper released by the government has been labelled by some as over-simplistic as it divides all of England’s land into three areas.
Those critical of the whitepaper claim that the difference between individual renewal sites can be huge and the whitepaper lacked real detail in how processes will work, warning that a one size fits all policy wouldn’t be appropriate.
The largest change is that for these areas, if you meet the requirements then your planning permission will be granted. This is a large cultural change from the current case-by-case approach.
Communities have traditionally had a say in large planning applications and this would not be the case under current proposals.
The primary drivers behind these suggestions are to improve efficiency and cut down on the often lengthy processing time required to grant planning permission.
Victoria summarised her concerns with the following remarks:
“On the face of it, it sounds very attractive. However we can’t help but think if it were that simple we would have done it a long time ago.”
“To make such a system successful, there would need to be a well-resourced planning team who can do the genuine community engagement.”
“As long as all interested parties are consulted early on, whilst being a large change, any disgruntlement later on down the line can be avoided.” 
This also provides an opportunity for planning technology to be incorporated into the process. Digitising the simpler functions of the planning process could free up a lot of the ‘back office’ resources. Which would free-up the resources needed for faster execution of the planning process. Having a delivery team at this stage could be crucial in improving efficiency.
Promising Signs for the Future
With consultations still ongoing at the time of writing, there is a real opportunity for these proposals to revolutionise the planning process.
With a focus on genuine community engagement, a revamped role of the local plan, and continued communication between developers and locals, the whitepaper could achieve its goals.
A particular highlight is the creation of a Chief Planning Officer in local authorities. The lack of position of authority has been seen as a main cause of delays in the past. In Scotland, it is now legislation that each authority must have a Chief Planning Officer.
However, there are several areas including affordable housing and social care that will require much more detail following the consultations in order to create a comprehensive piece of legislation that will positively impact the planning sector.
 Hills, Victoria. CEO, Royal Town Planning Institute. Reforming National Planning Processes