How will English planning reform play out?

Opinion: does the proposal to introduce zoning into English planning ensure the development the country needs? The Royal Town Planning Institute’s head of policy assesses the recent white paper


  • Richard Blyth

16 December 2020

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) published proposals for changes to the English planning system entitled Planning for the Future in August.

These proposals, commonly referred to as the planning white paper, include new ideas on 5 issues; namely, zonal planning, public engagement, digital planning, design, and an infrastructure levy. But will this achieve the government’s aim of boosting housing supply in England?

Zonal planning

It is claimed, not entirely accurately, that the planning system in England is an outlier in international terms, in that the plans we have here consist of written policies that steer the decisions mainly made by local authorities’ planning committees. The plans do not confer any automatic right to develop. While partly true, this is also the result of years of government influence and successive decisions by the courts, which have discouraged plans from being entirely prescriptive.

Under the proposals in the white paper, the whole of England would be divided by local authorities into the following 3 categories:
  • growth areas
  • protected areas
  • areas for renewal.
In growth areas, land allocations would be binding; so for housing, say, this would impose automatic outline permission for the development of homes.

The government envisages that protected areas would meanwhile retain something similar to the present system, with planning applications still needing to be made to local authorities, and a presumption against major development.

Renewal is not so clearly defined, however; it appears to be an extension of ministers’ current enthusiasm for permitted development, but the rules are to be set by each planning authority individually.

There is a lot to be said for making the land allocation process in local plans more certain. At present the system lets down communities, who find that completed housing bears little relation to the expectations set out in the plan; as well as developers, who find in extreme cases that housing allocations are overturned by planning committees.

Protection is not enough

The notion of protected areas also seems to be a missed opportunity. The government is promoting a 25-year environment plan and an environment bill. The state of even our highest landscape designations, such as national parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, leaves a great deal to be desired in environmental terms.

Furthermore, the pandemic has shown that everyone needs easy access to areas of high environmental quality, so the objective should be improvement rather than merely protection. Such areas should be determined by the contribution they can make to societal needs and our climate change goals, as well as protecting nature and landscape.

One might be forgiven for seeing renewal areas as all the bits left over after growth areas and protected areas are identified. The designation would cover all built-up areas in England, ranging from areas ripe for industrial recovery through to areas of severe housing stress and high-quality residential suburbs.

In addition, it seems it would include all our city and town centres, which introduces the challenges of high street decline while presenting opportunities for repurposing historic assets. To envisage a single set of permitted development rules for such a wide range of places seems very simplistic.

A better approach would be to tread carefully and launch a series of pilots around specific propositions, such as expansion of the enterprise zone concept for areas of industrial renewal and free ports. Another potential scheme to trial could be resident-led proposals for wider permitted development rules in limited neighbourhoods.

"The pandemic has shown that everyone needs easy access to areas of high environmental quality, so the objective should be improvement rather than merely protection"

Public engagement

The introduction of something like a zonal planning system would require moving the bulk of public engagement – which mainly happens only once applications have been determined – to the beginning of the planning process, where local plans are designed. This early engagement has long been the ambition of planning reforms for example, those of the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

It is notoriously difficult to get people interested in local plans because they are regarded as abstract. There is an argument that if you make the local plan the last opportunity to engage, then people may get the message and turn up to offer their views.

Frontloading the process would therefore require overturning 70 years of public expectations. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has thus called for a national campaign to raise awareness should these proposals come to fruition, with national funds allocated to support community engagement staff in councils.

Digital planning

We hear a lot about digital solutions to all sorts of public problems these days, and the government considers that this goes for planning as well. Ministers believe that the planning system is somehow behind when it comes to digitisation of processes.

In fact, local authority planning departments and the Planning Inspectorate have this year enabled activities such as planning committees to take place online, to continue working through the pandemic. However, this was partly hindered at some councils by a shortage of hardware – before March, many staff in local government were not fortunate enough to have laptops so they could work from home.

This shift has led to a very welcome increase in public involvement in planning processes. It is no longer necessary to take a morning off work to find out what is going on at an inquiry.

The RTPI signed a memorandum on digital planning with government transport agency the Connected Places Catapult in 2019, which included a call for digital engagement to be inclusive. It is a significant challenge to ensure that all sections of the community have the broadband and the devices needed to engage in planning.

Planning minister Chris Pincher recently called for 3D local plans, which would be a considerable benefit for public engagement, but would need everyone in the community to be able to handle very large volumes of data easily. Who will make this happen? Who will teach people who find it a challenge to engage? Although using digital technology can increase the reach of planning, we must ensure that we do not lose others along the way.


While there is widespread agreement that a lot of new housing developments are unattractive, there is little agreement on why that is, or on what to do about it. The government has made a commitment to establish a housing design body and to publish a guide on how to write local design codes.

Certainly, if national planning policy could be strengthened to enable local authorities to refuse planning applications solely on design grounds, a lot of progress could be made without rewriting planning legislation. Design codes may help make it easier to set expectations early on, in conjunction with designating suitable places as growth areas for example.

However, codes will need to cover much more than external appearance: our obligations on climate change, equality and inclusion mean that new buildings must perform well in a range of different respects.

Infrastructure levy

Ever since the publication of the Uthwatt Report in 1942, the issue of betterment has plagued the planning system. Once again a government is proposing new measures, in this case a flat-rate levy to be applied on all development everywhere.

While this is a pleasingly straightforward idea that would cut through the complexity and delay around current section 106 arrangements, like many of its predecessors it would face difficulties in implementation. Many parts of England – the very parts with some of the poorest housing and infrastructure – have low development value and would struggle to contribute, say, 20% out of gross development value to supporting infrastructure.

In addition, the biggest challenge with the section 106 is its use for affordable housing. The RTPI therefore recommends shifting payment for affordable housing largely out of the planning system, so that any future developer contributions can be dedicated to infrastructure.

"All would agree that a much greater variety of suppliers of new homes should be encouraged [...] it is not clear that a zonal system will necessarily do this"

False premises

The planning white paper is based on the assumption that if there are more planning permissions in England, housing will become more affordable.

This is an heroic assumption, though, because it overlooks the loose relation between permissions and housing completions, and the limited short-term impact of even adding to housing supply, should that be achievable. Only around 10% of homes sold across the country are new ones.

All would agree that a much greater variety of suppliers of new homes should be encouraged, and this is one of the government’s intentions with the white paper. On its own, it is not clear that a zonal system will necessarily do this, and there are a number of other ways in which SMEs could be helped to bring forward more supply such as by splitting up large sites and through involvement in Homes England activity or council-led development.


Related competencies include: Housing strategy and provision, Spatial planning policy and infrastructure  

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