Strengthening planning from the ground up

The Neighbourhood Planning Bill is another attempt to balance the competing interests that can make planning so divisive. In strengthening neighbourhood plans and compulsory purchase powers it’s a welcome step towards a strong, positive planning system.

Reading Martina Lees’ excellent Sunday Times piece on the travails of the planning system left me feeling real pity for planners. Everyone seems to hate them – for letting homes get built, for NOT letting homes get built, for being too slow with decisions, for being too hasty in decisions.

Which is pretty unfair – but probably inevitable, as the entire point of the planning system is to mediate the competing interests in society and come to accountable decisions. In other words, it’s bound to get it in the neck from both sides.

It’s right that such vital decisions are thought about properly on the basis of solid evidence, and are democratically accountable. We need planning, and planners, however much we struggle to love them, because there will always be a tension between collective interests – like the need for homes overall – and individual ones, like the view from my window. Successive government reforms have sought to balance these competing interests differently – the latest being the move to more localised neighbourhood plans in 2011. Like others we had some concerns that this shift would mean few homes coming through the system – but we could also see the benefits of getting local people to more fully engage with the difficult trade-offs that plan-making entails.

As I see it, there are two vital conditions for neighbourhood planning to fulfil this promise and avoid the dangers. Firstly, it really must engage local people positively in a realistic conversation about housing needs – and see meeting these as not just as a duty to be grudgingly met at the minimum level possible, but an opportunity to improve local services, revive local high streets and provide local jobs. That’s a real challenge for local communities themselves, but existing examples of positive community engagement and collaborative design should serve as a beacon.

Secondly, local people have to know that if they put the effort in to produce a really good plan, it will actually get delivered. We cannot expect people to put time and faith into the process – or to make the trade-offs and tough decisions that plan making requires – if they see their plans being ignored. Too often commercial developers are able ram through inappropriate schemes contrary to agreed plans – or to water down provision of affordable homes or community benefits even after permission has been granted. Whatever the plan says, it can often make sense for landowners to leave empty or underused sites undeveloped, as they wait for values to rise further. And when land prices are allowed to get so high, too often the quality development local people want becomes ‘unviable’.

These twin problems threaten to fatally undermine the validity of neighbourhood planning – which will only encourage disengagement, cynicism and NIMBYism from disillusioned local communities

So it is very welcome that the new Neighbourhood Planning Bill proposes to strengthen the status of Neighbourhood Plans, requiring planning committees and inspectors to give them more weight when deciding on planning applications. The moves to clarify the compulsory purchase system are also welcome, as these should give all actors in development more certainty as to when and how compulsory purchase should work.

As we’ve long argued, a properly functioning compulsory purchase system is an essential requirement for better development. Without it, landowners always have the option to hold out in hope of a higher price in the future, no matter what the cost to the community. Strong compulsory purchase powers are a last resort that should rarely be used – but having them there would shift the balance of landowner incentives in favour of development in line with the plan. Sadly the reforms in the Bill won’t really guarantee that Neighbourhood Plans will be delivered, as the compulsory purchase reforms don’t quite go far enough.

Strengthening the neighbourhood planning system will help to give more confidence to local people that the plans they create will be delivered. But to make a truly bottom-up planning system work we need to back it up with the willingness to intervene in the land market. A really coherent neighbourhood planning system would ensure that land comes forward at prices that allow the plan to be delivered.


  1. We spend to much time on Local Plans – which few people engage with. We should scrap them in favour of five year output targets with annual progress reports on them and a much stronger emphasis on site briefs and neighbourhood plans.

    That way people would be much more engaged with the specifics and not find themselves faced with “policies” they probably didn’t even know existed.

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    Sorry for slow response – comments got snarled up in an over-zealous spam filter. I can see your case – though now we’re finally getting close to full Local Plan coverage I’d be anxious about losing them all. Also, wouldn’t this sound rather similar to the regional system, with its output targets that everyone hated so much?

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