Written evidence submitted by Dr Tim Marshall, Emeritus Professor of Planning Oxford Brookes University [FPS 079]
I offer comments on just three of your issues, and even then I concentrate on parts of each one. My reason for submitting evidence is that I regard the content of the White Paper as offering completely the wrong approach to planning reform. I hope that the body of evidence submitted to the Committee will show how this is so, and that the Committee can be one avenue to help to generate a reform which makes genuine improvements, as against the present one which seeks to destroy the core of the system as it has existed, in many varying forms, since the 1940s.
1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?
First I focus on the clear heart of the White Paper, the proposal to create three types of area, with very deep removal of planning control in two of these. This therefore addresses the third part of issue 1. On parts one and two I would refer the Committee to the two recent reports by a group of planning academics.[i] I would also endorse far the greater part of the Raynsford Review of 2018, which carried out a much more extensive review of the planning system than the authors of the government proposals have done, and prepared a much more coherent and comprehensive set of reform proposals.
Creating three (or maybe two) types of areas, with varying planning systems: this is the core of the White Paper, despite a great deal of public interest focused on other elements like design, funding infrastructure and digitisation. The Committee should spend significant amounts of its time on this core, or it will be missing the central drive of the reforms. The aim is clear, to create a system where significantly less of the development process is subject to public planning control. This therefore extends and powerfully deepens the increases in permitted development rights in the last 10 years. Only a government with a deep aversion to democratic public planning would present this as the centre piece of its reform programme. It nullifies the supposed support for the planning system mentioned elsewhere in the White Paper and goes completely against those parts of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report which supported planning. If something like this planning system fragmentation proposal goes ahead, then most of the rest of the reforms will have dramatically less importance, as the areas remaining for public planning control will have been so drastically reduced.
The White Paper is often weak on detail, and has little coordination between the different sections. But it looks as if the result could be the worst of all possible planning worlds, with a significantly weakened remaining discretionary system in some areas, and an extremely weak and confusing kind of zoning model in other areas. This has been politely called “hybrid”, but “weak and confused” would be a clearer description. As far as one can tell from the White Paper’s main drive, the impacts are likely to include the following:
So, at the most general level, this kind of planning reform will mean that the (apparent) headline objectives of the government (good quality house building, net zero energy, levelling up, economic recovery), as presented in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and in other documents and speeches, will not be capable of being progressed by planning means. Clearly other governmental instruments will continue to exist (fiscal, public investment, national strategies like the National Infrastructure Commission). But these are blunt and often simply ineffective methods of steering change across the many and varied localities of England. Why would the government wish to lose one of the most important means to progress its own programmes?
In my view, therefore, the government should lay aside this core element of the White Paper (the three areas fragmentation of planning control) and develop an effective means to achieve its goals. This should address the real reasons for failed housing policies, the real reasons for the fragmentation of the country into prosperous and declining economies, and the real reasons why the country is a very long way from any path to achieve net zero. There has been extensive advice on all these areas, from its own advisors (such as parts of the Letwin report and the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission) as well as those of independent reports like those of the Raynsford Review and the 2070 Commission. None of these proposed the dissolution of planning control across major areas of the country, because they were focussed on trying to solve real world problems, by thought through proposals.
5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?
My second comment is on the need to widen the scope of the common approach to public engagement in planning. The decades long debates on participation and consultation have led to useful conclusions, which I am sure many other experts will report on to the Committee. But one area which has had rather less exposure and discussion is the need to develop public debating approaches at levels above the very local, on large projects, on programmes and on whole spatial strategies for wider areas. I have written on this area of macro deliberation or public discussion, as have a few others[ii].
The question of how to make public decision making arrangements which can really promote public trust is central to some of planning’s difficulties. Part of the solution to the loss of trust is I am sure the refoundation of local government, whose fall is I think a significant part of the loss of trust in this field. But experience since at least the 1970s (post Skeffington) suggests that there has often not been a systematic deepening of capacity to carry out exercises in public involvement. Whilst some local authorities, and regional assemblies in the short time they were allowed to develop, did generate a lot of learning and in some areas (especially in well resourced urban planning contexts) a culture of built in and politically well articulated public conversations, this probably never became generalised. Often consultation at national, local and neighbourhood levels is dysfunctional. There is a need to move beyond predictable processes which are foregrounding development lobbies and protectionist voices; these often get nowhere, get jammed up.
So there is a need for a body which can grow methods, practices, cultures, across the board in the field of planning and across into related fields such as transport, land use change, and food production. Continuity and long term learning is essential, hence the need for a body which has proper autonomy, though well connected to its government department, which should be MHCLG.
Experience in France with the CNDP (the Commission Nationale du Debat Public, about which I have written over the last decade), shows how this build up of practice can work. In France this is specifically in the field of major infrastructure, and there they have over 20 years of experience on how to organise public debates, and use other techniques (especially digitally in most recent years). The Institute for Government explored in 2017 how this might work in the major infrastructure field in Britain, and proposed a Commission for Public Engagement. I would suggest that the remit of such a body be expanded to include support for all public engagement in planning and some related fields. A core role would be helping authorities with strategic planning challenges. There is also need to support community planning, in the style of community technical aid centres of the 1970s, but this would no doubt be better done by more locally based agencies, alongside the refoundation of local government, not by a national body. Neighbourhood planning has hardly scraped the surface of this, across most of England.
Therefore the roles of such a National Public Deliberative Agency or Commission for Public Engagement would be these:
Digital means make this far more possible than in the past, although non-digital modes will still be essential – mixed (digital and non-digital) modes of micro and macro deliberation and participation will be the only effective path. For example, housing development in a locality should in future be considered deliberatively by the actors in that locality, to establish goals and means for what is needed – both for existing (retrofitting, affordability) and new housing (form, location, standards, costs). This should be the subject of well designed public discussion exercises, which will then feed into planning strategies for the localities. The result would be the formation of a kind of citizens compact. The Commission for Public Engagement proposed here would support this and many other areas of planning policy development across England.
7. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?
I do not comment directly on the green belt issue itself, but simply argue that this must be considered as part of the creation of fresh strategic planning capacity. One reason why local planning is so weak is the collapse of effective planning above Local and Unitary Plan areas, in most of England. Even London suffers from the same problem, as there is no effective planning space for dealing with the Wider South East, the region containing the wider London green belt. This means that green belt review cannot be conducted intelligently. Though I do not go into this here, the often repeated call for a national spatial strategy would also help create some wider framing for countryside protection as a whole. This is urgently needed, rather than looking at issues sectorally (agriculture, flooding, urbanisation, AONBs, green belt etc).
New arrangements for strategic planning need to be created. At present there is a big local to national planning gap. It is arguable that academic and professional thought has not given the basic “levels question” enough attention: given current challenges, what should be set at national level, what very locally, and what will benefit most by being set at city region/county, regional or provincial levels? It will be essential to have significant amounts of planning direction set nationally, but these central decisions should work with proper local empowerment, in a tiered system. Three core policy fields give examples of what is needed
· Housing policy will certainly require national decision making, although if this is to have any impact on need, it would have to be completely different from that of recent years. A properly needs-oriented policy would transform the dynamics in each locality, and would mean that far more could then be left to fairly local levels of decision making. Each locality should be empowered to make compacts with citizenry to approach real affordability, over a decade or more. This might learn from an experimental (model) German project in Muenster which some years ago explored ways to get such agreement with citizens across a set of municipal areas, attempting to steer the evolution of housing stock and prices, including for new sites for housing, with the affordability stipulated[iii]. This would include programmes for genuinely affordable housing to rent - council housing most likely.
· Major climate and environmental challenges will need new national as well as ideally regional/provincial policy frames, addressing the profoundly geographical nature of these challenges. Integration is the watchword when thinking about catchments, agriculture, urban development, transport, energy: these must be treated together. This requires work at, as a minimum, county or city-regional scales, enabling plans with teeth, resourced for the long term.
· Economic transformation (or recovery) policy will need new interventionist plans tailored to each locality, with the scale ranging from city region to larger, but certainly well above the normal English district. Bodies like Local Economic Partnerships do not have the legitimacy or weight to lead on the enormous economic challenges which the 2020s will see, ranging from rebuilding the foundational economy to creating or maintaining export sectors. Heavyweights are needed, with long term funding handed over by central government. As the Commission on Economic Justice (2018) and the UK 2070 Commission[iv] argued, the provincial level (4 English provinces) could be the best for this, but in the absence of that, city regions and county empowerment would be essential.
The answer therefore to the “levels question” is that a democratically elected and fully resourced county or city region tier of government is needed (with proper councils not the simply duplicating system of mayors), otherwise the tangled, failing and illegitimate forms of governing we have today will continue. This should also ideally be framed by regional / provincial associations who can set the planning and funding formulas for transport and environmental futures over bigger geographies[v].The provincial or regional levels would be best elected, but in the (very likely) absence of this, should be made up of representatives of local government, to give at least some democratic legitimacy[vi].
Both tiers will help on the three key fronts: setting credible and legitimate housing directions (for retrofit as well as new build), framing environmentally intelligent new geographies for living (transport, retail-logistics-deliveries, schooling, higher education), and integrating economic transformation with the first two fields. Alongside the democratic elected bodies, this should involve institutionalised debating on how to move forward, with these tiers having central roles in organising macro public debates on especially difficult and divisive issues.
[i] See The wrong answers to the wrong questions, August 2020, and The right answers to the right questions, October 2020, reports by an independent group of planning academics. The second will be published shortly, also on the TCPA website. Also see the Special Issue of Town and Country Planning, Vol 89, Sept/October 2020, including T Marshall, The White Paper’s ideological core, pages 304-306.
[ii] T Marshall 2016 ‘Learning from France: using public deliberation to tackle infrastructure planning issues’, International Planning Studies, 21(4): 329-347. D Slade 2018 ‘Major infrastructure projects – the case for a Commission for Public Engagement’, Town and Country Planning, 87(3): 111-116.
[iv] As argued by UK 2070 Commission, Go Big, Go Local, September 2020. And see IPPR Commission on Economic Justice (2018) Prosperity and Justice. A Plan for the New Economy, London: IPPR.
[v] Most countries have three or four tiers of democratic government. There is no need to see this as wasteful. Securing informed and intelligent consent to the steering of critical future changes is not a “cost”, but the key to deciding in a way which sticks. Each body is sized according to its tasks.
[vi] For a more modest but well judged alternative, see a proposal for a new strategic planning system published in October 2020, by Catriona Riddell, Planning Reforms and the Role of Strategic Planning, County Councils Network.