Local Democracy in Planning: Under Threat

By Andrew Wood
27th July 2020
You know there’s a problem when the four major professional institutions in the built environment, and eighteen environmental charities, unite to defend the planning system.
An unprecedented attack is under way upon the local scrutiny and accountability of the planning decisions that affect the places we live in and care about. This comes from the heart of a central Government that has bought the myth that planning is an obstacle to growth.

Planning works in a creative tension between strategy – how we want places to evolve – and regulation – how we ensure that the right development is permitted and the wrong development is blocked.

The public gets two bites at the cherry in terms of local accountability:

  • Firstly, they get to scrutinise the Development Plan during its preparation, and rely on their elected councillors to adopt a Plan that broadly reflects the needs and aspirations of citizens.
  • Secondly, they have an opportunity to influence decisions on planning applications – again through the responsibilities of elected local politicians.

This two-stage process can sometimes lead to inconsistent decisions, but embraces the fundamental point that there is no such thing as a perfect or complete Development Plan, because the sands of reality constantly shift. This calls to mind a quotation attributed to General Eisenhower, that “plans are useless but planning is indispensable”. You won’t actually do what you’ve written down you’re going to do, but working through your reasoning will equip you to make good decisions as the need arises. If any of us consider our own lives, we know this to self-evidently true.

The UK Government is deliberately reversing this logic. It wants to regard a ‘Plan’ as a tablet of stone, and eliminate any need or scope for ‘planning’ ie making responsive, informed decisions in real time. It is pursuing this by two means.

First comes an extension of Permitted Development (PD) rights. Since 2013, the Government has allowed changes from offices to residential without planning permission. Most of the quantitative growth in the rate of new housing supply since then has come from office conversions. But in fact, it has been an unmitigated disaster, because the resulting schemes have been so low quality. Homes are being built way below decent standards for internal and outdoor space, and some flats have even been built without windows. It is no exaggeration to say that this piece of de-regulation is directly leading to the construction of slums.

Experts from all sides are united in their condemnation. A 2018 report by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found that “office to residential PDR has been a fiscal giveaway from the state to the private real estate interests while leaving a legacy of a high quantum of poor quality housing” and concluded that conversions “should be returned to full planning control”. Homeless charity Shelter called for an end to the scheme, estimating that urban local authorities missed out on 10,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2018 as a direct result of PD conversions.

Yet the Government has dug in its heels and extended the PD provisions. You have to conclude that it simply doesn’t care about the evidence, or about the damage it is doing.

Supposing there is a redundant office building in your neighbourhood, you may think that converting it to residential is a good idea. But to convert it to sub-standard housing, that is unfit for occupation and damaging to health and well-being of any unfortunate occupant, and be allowed to do so without planning permission – without you having a say – is just plain wrong. We must fight against it.

Next to come is a much wider-reaching overhaul of the planning system. Its details are unconfirmed yet, but it is expected to feature a ‘zonal’ approach to Development Plans. At its crudest level, this would mean two land-use types – either suitable for development, or suitable for green space and ecosystems. In practice, sub-set zones are probably likely. But the idea is that once such zones have been marked on the map, the discretionary planning system would be redundant. The question, “Is this a good enough scheme for this place and this community?” would no longer be valid.

It’s hard to understand how this rabidly de-regulatory approach can go hand-in-hand with the awarding of new strategic planning powers to devolved City Regions. What use will those powers be, if planning decisions become binary ‘development or no development’ without reference to local policies and consultation? It’s virtually impossible to see how it squares with the Government’s supposed aims to improve design standards and to tackle the climate emergency.

If this wilful derailing of the democratic system in planning is to be stopped, we have to work together, and we have to send out a clear message that, for all its flaws, local democracy is precious and must be championed.

For some excellent further detail, see this TCPA article.



Mark Richardson / Alamy Stock Photo
Ilkley from White Wells