Delivering the value of planning: new report says stronger planning authorities will create better places

This month, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has published a significant report suggesting ways in which good planning can deliver sustainable economic growth and tackle the country’s housing shortage.

Delivering the Value of Planning argues that properly resourcing councils’ planning teams, improving respect for planners and strengthening their influence, will lead to more and better development.

The challenges facing planners

The report contends that thirty years of almost continual changes in planning policy and regulation, along with cuts to local government budgets, has left the UK “incapable of consistently delivering good quality new places.”

The researchers also express concern about the widespread perception that planners act as a brake on new housing, economic growth and entrepreneurial activity:

Many changes have been informed by the flawed notion that planning has held back an otherwise efficient, self-regulating market that, if increasingly freed from its constraints, would be able to more rapidly deliver development.”

The impact of these challenges on planners themselves may be seen in the results of an RTPI survey, which found that:

  • nearly three-quarters (73%) think that constant changes to planning have hindered their ability to deliver good places;
  • more than half (53%) think that these changes have hindered housing development;
  • nearly 70% think that they are less able to deliver the benefits of planning compared to 10 years ago.

The report’s focus is on England, and the authors note that the policy debate around planning in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has generally been more positive and constructive. But they observe that here too planning in many ways “remains under valued, under resourced and under used as a positive enabler and facilitator for development.”

Where planning works well

Throughout the report, the authors argue that effective and proactive planning can deliver considerable economic, social and environmental benefits for society, including:

  • providing clarity and confidence for investments;
  • improving the quantity and quality of land for development and construction;
  • delivering more and better housing development;
  • lowering the cost of overall development and opening up opportunities for new development.

To demonstrate the contribution of planning to the creation of successful places, the report showcases five award-winning developments in the UK:

  • Cranbrook in East Devon – a new community created by proactive planning set to provide 7,500 homes over the next 20 years;
  • Brindleyplace in Birmingham – an urban renewal development which has preserved the area’s heritage whilst revitalising it to attract new business and leisure uses;
  • Upton in Northampton – a high quality urban extension comprising 1,350 homes, with a commitment to exemplary urban design and environmental sustainability;
  • Norwich Riverside – a large regeneration project which has transformed a former industrial site into a successful major residential, retail and leisure development;
  • Fairfield Park in Bedfordshire – where the local authority has played a crucial role in shaping a high quality, attractive development with a strong sense of community and good facilities.

Rising to the challenge: what needs to be done

Delivering the Value of Planning says there is an urgent need to take stock of the UK’s planning systems, and to debate alternative futures that might produce better results. It advocates three key steps in this direction:

  • planners need to raise greater awareness about how better economic as well as social and environmental outcomes can be delivered through well-planned development;
  • national and local government needs to consider the particular powers, resources and expertise that planning services require;
  • in both research and policy, the value of planning needs to be analysed to understand how its economic, social and environmental benefits can be maximised.

The report argues that planning authorities are in a good position to exercise leadership, and to think about places in ways that the private sector often cannot:

  • bringing together agencies, government bodies and service providers, to identify and deliver the best long-term outcomes across different policy areas;
  • setting and enforcing high standards of building design;
  • providing for public and green spaces to enhance the attractiveness of an area to residents, businesses and visitors;
  • removing risks and obstacles to development, such as contaminated land.

In the midst of a national housing shortage, the report calls for a stronger role for public sector-led developments, pointing to examples of good practice in Manchester, Norwich and Birmingham which have delivered more and better housing and development.

Realising the potential of planning

The RTPI report reinforces the planning profession’s strong conviction that planning is a solution, rather than a problem.

“If the full benefits of planning are truly to be realised, we need reforms that exploit its true potential to reconcile economic, social and environmental challenges through positive and collective action, and which confront those sectoral interests that seek only short-term, self-interested solutions.”

By James Carson, Idox

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