Maintaining strong place leadership in the face of significant planning reform
Planners will face huge challenges in maintaining the quality of Local Plans, managing developments effectively and engaging communities as they implement the most significant reforms to the UK’s planning system in decades.
But, if they have the resources and support to get it right, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to achieve their own local ambitions as well as the national ones set out in the Government’s Planning White Paper.
The challenges and opportunities presented by the proposed reforms were discussed at the recent Local Government Chronicle Future Places conference. Stephen Ottewell, Capita Local Public Services’ Director of Planning and Building Control, joined the panel to give his views on whether the reforms would be a barrier to place leadership.
And, along with the rest of the panellists, he was upbeat about the opportunities that the reforms present for local authority placemakers to make a real difference to their communities while being realistic about the challenges that they’re likely to pose.
Stephen joined Sam Chapman-Allen (leader of Breckland District Council), Victoria Hiller (Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute) and Melanie Leech (Chief Executive of the British Property Federation) for the discussion.
He began by describing the Planning White Paper, published in August 2020, as “unashamedly” focused on the government’s agenda – complete with “fairly pointed” remarks by the Prime Minister about the current planning system – and containing some “headline-grabbing” reforms such as the standard housing methodology and centralised housing targets that take some aspects of planning out of councils’ traditional control.
But Stephen believes that there is still “significant scope for local place leaders to preserve their local ambitions whilst achieving these central ambitions at the same time”.
He predicted that the reforms would present several challenges, and he highlighted three key areas:
- the importance of the Plan-led system
- managing development
- engaging local communities.
Reinforcing the importance of Local Plans
“I’m reassured that the reforms will reiterate the importance of the Plan-led system,” said Stephen. “I think that’s hugely important… a Local Plan is a critical aspect of local place leadership. I also think it’s right that the Government wants to speed up and simplify the process.”
But he warned that, in moving towards Plans that are based on simple rules and development zones, it was vital to be very, very careful not to compromise Plan quality and to make sure that, when preparing local evidence, work is carried out when it can add significant value to an area and contribute to planning policies that tackle local issues.
“There’s a huge amount to achieve,” he added. “The Government initially wanted these new-style Plans on the books by 2023. Clearly that would present a huge resource issue, so it will be about trying to wherever possible in the face of significant funding challenges deliver services and deliver some service resilience.”
Stephen predicted that the planning reform will bring with it significant changes – councils will need to determine fewer types of applications and they will determine applications based on national rules rather than by applying “professional judgement and planning balance”.
Local design codes and masterplans would play a central role in influencing planning decisions at a local level, he said. Place leaders would need to use strong leadership to ensure that these tools were used everywhere, not just in areas where the local community or interest groups were already active. The codes and masterplans would also have to have “sufficient teeth” to allow planners to reflect development plans that they felt were inappropriate or wouldn’t enrich the area that they were proposed for.
Keeping local people engaged with the planning process
Stephen welcomed the Planning White Paper’s reinforcement of the Government’s commitment to getting residents engaged with the planning process, but he emphasised the need to make sure it actually happened.
The coronavirus pandemic had been responsible for a “real success story” for communities engaging with plan makers via digital channels and the challenge would be to maintain that and keep using the most successful tools and techniques to connect with diverse communities in diverse places to address diverse issues.
It was critical to engage with people in all groups, not just those who were already interested or invested in the planning process. This became easier when applications came in for developments close to people’s homes.
“We can’t underestimate the challenges that are part of that engagement, in explaining the changes. Often, me and my team are scratching our heads with some of these reforms, so it will be key to make sure that we take [people] on a journey of explaining the changes,” Stephen said.
The importance of being well resourced
Stephen was asked by the discussion chairman, Local Government Chronicle editor Nick Golding, to outline the difference between a well-resourced planning department and an under-resourced one.
He was very clear that, as well as having enough people to do the job properly, having those people at the right time was crucial. Even with the simplified and quicker processes that the government’s reforms aim to achieve, the size of planning teams’ workloads varies immensely over time and departments need to be able to “flex” their resources to meet peaks and troughs in demand.
Once departments have the volume of resource right, their focus must then be on having “the right people in the right place at the right time”, he said.
The consequences of not having enough resource are serious: “If you haven’t got the basic level of resource right, you’re always going to be seeking compromises.” A planning department would be left with an under-resourced team dealing with applications or be unable to fulfil its placemaking ambitions, unable to do all the work it wanted to create the best possible environment for local people and businesses.
Stephen foresaw planning teams having a lot of extra work implementing design codes in all localities – not just where they’re already active – and, unless they’re properly resourced, they would be forced to do the bare minimum.
“We want strong leadership to say no, we want to have all this best practice in all areas because that underpins a successful place,” he concluded.
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