Planning reform: An opportunity to share your experiences

Since the formation of the new Government the pace of change for planning has been hotting up as the political spotlight shines ever brighter on the housing crisis and the perceived need to streamline the planning system to improve delivery.

Is planning the problem?

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) estimates that 265,000 new households are being formed in England each year. Currently we’re building half the amount of houses needed for those households, and it is clear that something must be done to ensure everyone has a safe, secure and sustainable home to call their own. 

Indeed, a central tenet of the Conservatives election manifesto is that 'everyone who works hard should have a home of their own'. This has been subsequently compounded by the Productivity Plan ‘Fixing the Foundations’ (PDF, 1MB) which further emphasises the need for planning reform. You can read more on that in my blog.

The blame for this under delivery has been placed squarely on the planning process. As a planner, I would urge the government to look towards other contributory factors such as the buy to let, developers land banking and problems with securing finance.

But this blog is not trying to start a debate on the causes of the housing crisis, though such a debate would always be welcome! I am writing to flag to your attention a new expert panel that the government has launched to streamline the local plan making process.  The principle is that if this process can be speeded up, there will be greater certainty for both developers and communities when it comes to delivering new infrastructure.

The NPPF (National Planning Framework) (PDF, 0.9MB) was launched in 2012 but since then one third of LPAs (Local Planning Authorities) still do not have an up-to-date local plan in conformity with the NPPF.

The panel

When he launched the panel, the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, announced that it includes people from a range of backgrounds.

  • Chair John Rhodes of planning consultants Quod
  • Adrian Penfold from developers British Land
  • Richard Harwood QC from legal firm 39 Essex Chambers
  • Councillor Toby Elliott from Swindon Borough Council
  • Keith Holland, a retired Senior Planning Inspector
  • Liz Peace, formerly of the British Property Federation
  • John Howell MP, member for Henley
  • Derek Stebbing, Local Authority Plans Manager for Chelmsford City Council

A quick scan through this list however shows a distinct lack of environmental, community or rural interests being represented. Indeed we know that several members of the panel have been very vocal in their support of the development industry at the expense of the planning system and the communities and environment it seeks to work for.

The panel's task

The panel has been tasked with finding ways of streaming the plan making systems. But it must be remembered that the focus will be on 'slashing the amount of time it takes local authorities to get them in place'. There is no mention in the press release of producing aspirational plans that will deliver the development communities want whilst standing up robustly to legal challenge.

To aid them in this task a 'call for evidence' has been issued. A number of headings have been set to frame responses. These can be summarised as the following:

  1. Content of Local Plans
  2. Local Plan Preparation Process
  3. Agreeing Strategic Requirements
  4. Implementation
  5. Observations
  6. Other

Unfortunately there is no more detail under these headings available online but please get in touch with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) directly at for more, or contact me and I shall pass on what DCLG has sent to us. Meanwhile, we are pushing for more depth and detail to be made available online.

Our view

We are very disappointed by the clear, development-driven bent of the Panel. Even with the huge level of threats to ancient woods and veteran and special trees we have to deal with, the Trust is not anti-development. We take each case on its merits and we recognise the importance of infrastructure and particularly the importance of secure housing for all. But we do not want to see the interests of developers put before communities or before the nation’s woods and trees, particularly irreplaceable ancient woodland.

We believe local plans are fundamental to delivering environmentally sound developments. It is critical that the Panel does not miss the link between plan making and development management (when an application is submitted for consideration).

Time spent on delivering a clear plan can be time saved at the application stage. We see time and again through our Woods under Threat casework, that brevity does not breed clarity. Uncertainty just creates an opening for legal challenges, expense and confusion. In our response to the call for evidence, we will include examples of good and bad plan-making, and we shall be pushing for policies that reflect Natural England’s Standing Advice on Ancient Woodland for clear strategic policies on woods and trees.

Local Plans should not just be about waving development through quickly. They should set the bar high for good quality environmentally sound communities which deliver an environmental net gain and create places people really want to live, work and play.

Evidence shows that people want to live in well treed, leafy areas and that for economists and developers alike this has the added advantage of adding to house prices. From a local and national government perspective quality places are critical for enabling healthy, wealthy and aspirational communities.

Over to you

We encourage you to get involved in the review. We believe this is a great opportunity for our supporters to engage with the process of planning reform and of local plan-making.

How has the local plan process worked, or not worked, for you? It would be brilliant if you could include elements around woods and trees in your response but wider social and environmental impacts would be great too, especially how you see local plans relating to neighbourhood plans and delivery locally. You could highlight good practice as well as bad: we planners can face a lot of stick (pun intended!) and so it’s always nice to hear how the system is working well.

With over 600 ancient woods under threat from development, our current local plan system is failing woods and trees, so the status quo is not an option. This ‘slashing’ approach may well herald bleaker times ahead. It’s critical we all take this opportunity to engage.

I will keep you posted with further blogs on these reforms and the upcoming Housing Bill. Why not follow me in your Scrapbook? And please do get in touch at if you would like to discuss specific local plan examples.