Former housing minister finds current planning system not fit for purpose

Existing planning rules in England should be scrapped as it is no longer able to produce the kind of homes that people need in terms of affordability, health and well-being, according to a new hard hitting report.

Former housing minister Nick Raynsford, who chaired the review into planning by the Town and Country Planning Association, says that decades of tinkering to try to make the system more viable and effective have not worked.

Launching the report in London, Raynsford described the current system as being ‘built on the back of assertion rather than evidence’ and the result is poor outcomes. He called for a radical, root and branch reform of planning at a national level.

‘Planning has become a focus for bitter controversy. As a service which seeks to achieve the optimum outcome from often conflicting pressures, planning inevitably attracts differing points of view, and always has. But the ferocity of the divisions which characterise today’s debates on planning, together with the scale of public disenchantment with its processes and outcomes, are, in my experience, unprecedented,’ Raynsford says in his executive summary.

‘The achievements of planning are increasingly being challenged by powerful voices questioning its very purpose and arguing for the relaxation or repeal of the structures and powers that support the planning process in England. In their view, planning is at best slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic, an obstacle to getting things done, or at worst ‘the enemy of enterprise’ which needs to be dismantled,’ he points out.

‘At the same time, the planning service is chronically underfunded, and the staff are often demoralised by the constraints within which they are working. Dissatisfaction with the planning system and its processes explain what has been an almost constant state of flux over the past decade and a half, during which a plethora of ‘reforms’ have been introduced, often on the back of assertion rather than evidence, and with little or no attempt to assess the impact of the previous changes before rushing into another,’ he explains.

‘Ironically this process of near-continuous change has not improved the public’s experience of planning. On the contrary, planning today is widely seen as more riddled with complexities and contradictions than at any time in the past three-quarters of a century. There can be few if any public services that more justify the adage “We can’t go on like this”,’ he adds.

He also said that there is a widespread lack of trust and confidence in planning. ‘The planning system is no longer capable of shaping the places we need to secure people’s long term health and wellbeing. We need a new approach with people at the heart of decisions and a system which meets the growing challenges of housing affordability, climate change and economic transformation,’ he said.

The review calls for a new national body for planning, similar to Homes England to help link up local plans at a wider level and says that a simplified planning system would provide better clarity at a local, regional and national level.

‘While the majority of decisions should remain with local planning authorities, regional and sub-regional planning will require renewed clarity on which institutions will be planning at this scale and the remit and governance arrangements that they should have,’ the review adds.

Overall, the Raynsford Review of Planning makes nine provisional recommendations for reforms to the planning system including giving the public a greater voice the planning process as persistent changes to planning legislation have left the system powerless to defend the public interest.

Other recommendations include establishing a statutory definition of planning which would regulate development based on its potential for achieving ‘social, economic and cultural wellbeing’ and setting a legal obligation for the government to plan for the needs of future generations.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) said the review is an opportunity to take ideas on how to improve the planning system. ‘The report rightly recognises that planners in England are working in a less than optimal system that is too complex, underfunded and struggling with economic forces outside its control,’ said RTPI president John Acres.

‘But ultimately we should not pretend that there is a foolproof planning system, and starting afresh does no one any good. That is why the success of UK planners needs to be celebrated more and that investing in the people who are in the frontline shaping this success is a key priority,’ he added.