The future of the planning system in England – Responses to HCLG select committee report

Foreword: Duncan Gunn, GUNN Associates:

The future of the planning system in England is a topic that regularly surfaces, and government publishes papers expounding the virtues of whatever changes they are asserting; however, changes that would really alter the system for the better require buy-in from disparate parties, such as central government, local government, the public, and the housebuilders, developers, etc. Almost always, the populist rhetoric is to give more power to local communities but, with nationwide pressures to provide a huge amount of additional, affordable housing, commercial realities of high land prices and increasing construction costs, and the vagaries of local government politics, the plans have never stood much of a chance of success.  Wholesale change is needed and to make this successful, I believe that a campaign is needed to extol the virtues of national cohesion to achieve the long-term goals. It is understandable that short-term inconveniences cause such a furor in local government and, especially where local and parliamentary politicians shape their policies to maintain their seats and win votes. With all of this in mind, I do not have a solution, but I do have a heartfelt request; I implore local planning authorities to be consistent in their approach and publish clear guidelines on their policies, their priorities, and their development guidelines. Some local authorities, such as Croydon, have led the way with excellent guidance and, if central government would require all local planning authorities to publish similarly, it would go a long way to reduce unnecessary applications, thereby hastening the process and clearing a lot of the backlog.


The Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee published its wide-ranging heavyweight select committee report on the government’s proposed reform of the planning system earlier in June and it calls on ministers to reconsider their planning white paper proposals.

Select committee reports, which are not binding on government, often get ignored yet high-profile reactions are being published and Ministers will find it hard to dismiss this report. Among its many recommendations are penalties for developers that fail to build out permissions in time, and a call for ministers to reconsider their proposal for local plans to designate three types of land; forcing local authorities to zone their areas in to one of three designations: growth, renewal, or protection, and the abolition of section 106 planning gain agreements.

The government’s proposals to reform the planning system were set out in the ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper last August and the Queen’s speech on 11th May 2021 included an announcement that the government will be introducing a new planning bill likely to come before Parliament in the Autumn.

The Actual Report can be found here.

HCLG committee’s chair, Labour MP Clive Betts said:

“The government has a lot of work to do, to put the white paper proposals into a form which can be implemented. The recommendations in our report were intended to make them more practicable. The government’s response to consultation on the white paper is due shortly, while a bill is not expected until at least the autumn,”

As you would expect, the industry was quick to react to the news. Here’s a handy round-up of what they’re saying:


Federation of Master Builders (FMB) response:

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said:

“I strongly support the Housing Committee’s calls for the Government to bring forward an additional £500 million over the next four years for local authority planning departments. This will help address significant delays in the planning process that are disproportionately impacting our smallest house builders. Almost 1 in 2 small to medium-sized (SME) house builders say that the planning system is one of the biggest constraints on their ability to build more homes. My members tell me that they typically wait one year for a determination on a small site. These statistics are unacceptable in the face of a national housing shortage, and when we are far from reaching the Government’s targets of building 300,000 new homes a year. We will only achieve this target by reversing the decline in SME house builders who once built 40% of new homes, but now just 12%.”



The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) response:

RIBA President, Alan Jones said:

“The Select Committee report echoes many of our own concerns, albeit I am disappointed to see an extract from RIBA’s evidence about aesthetics taken somewhat out of context. We have been clear, including in our response to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation that current proposals lack critical detail about how they would work in practice, focusing too much on external visual appearance, at the expense of high-quality, safe, accessible and sustainable design.

We urgently require further detail from the Government on the replacement for Section 106 Agreements, the process for allocating land for new uses, and the proposed formula to set housing delivery targets. It is only by considering such details that the Government will truly demonstrate their commitment to improving the quality of housing and all areas of the built environment for future generations.”



Local Government Association (LGA) Response:

Cllr David Renard, Local Government Association planning spokesperson, said:

“Councils want to work with government on developing the detail of its Planning Bill and to go further and faster to tackle our housing crisis. With more than 1.1 million homes given planning permission over the past decade yet to be built and councils approving 9 in 10 planning applications, it is clear that the planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding and that it is the housing delivery system which is in need of reform.

There are also more than a million more homes on land earmarked in local plans for development by councils that are yet to be brought forward by developers for planning permission. It is therefore good the Committee backs our call for councils to be able to levy full council tax on incomplete properties, as an incentive to get developers building more quickly.

A local, democratically-led planning system remains critical so local communities can continue to have their say on developments, ensure the right homes are built in the right places and shape the area they live in.”



Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) response:

David Hawkes, ICE Lead Policy Manager said:

“ICE submitted evidence to the inquiry, which is cited throughout the report, noting the importance of collaborative strategic infrastructure planning at cross-boundary level. What does the report say? Above all, the committee says that there is a need for more information about how the government’s proposed reforms would work. While the primary concerns of the committee centre around the newly proposed zonal planning approach, it also highlights the omission of various important issues relating to the non-housing elements of the planning system.

It’s particularly encouraging that the committee agrees with ICE that the Duty to Cooperate – which requires cooperation between local planning authorities and other public bodies – should not be abolished without an effective replacement being in position. The committee goes even further than this, recommending that the government should give combined authorities statutory powers to oversee the collaboration of local authorities in their area until the Duty to Cooperate is replaced. When it comes to funding, the committee is unconvinced about the case for a proposed single Infrastructure Levy replacing both Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

While it finds that a new levy could replace CIL and improve land value capture, the removal of Section 106 risks jeopardising the delivery of both infrastructure and affordable housing.

This aligns with ICE’s submission, which outlined that the binding nature of Section 106 agreements provides vital upfront contributions that mitigate against the impacts on communities that major projects inevitably have.

The government’s 300,000 homes per year target also comes under scrutiny, with the report sceptical that this can be delivered. The committee recommends that the government should publish the evidence behind the target and set out how it can be achieved, breaking down the target both by tenure and location.

What is missing? – The report cites evidence from multiple organisations, including ICE, that the lack of sub-national planning weakens the planning system and the long-term development of areas.

No concrete recommendations on addressing this are put forward, but it is encouraging that the committee considers longer-term reforms in this area are needed, including potential joint plans that are overseen by mayors and combined authorities.

The need for sub-national planning is something ICE has explored. Integrated regional housing and infrastructure strategies that are evidence-based, have cross-authority agreement and go beyond individual political cycles mean that infrastructure for housing can be planned in a far more strategic way than at present. Such strategies could be developed by widening the remit of sub-national transport bodies (STBs) to include all economic infrastructure sectors. STBs are focused on place-based outcomes, so improving this part of the planning system would facilitate a more integrated approach to housing and infrastructure provision at both a regional and local level.”

While the committee states that it welcomes efforts to improve the current planning system, it’s unconvinced that the proposals will produce a quicker, holistic, more effective planning system. With the bill due to be introduced in the near future, time is of the essence to ensure the reforms deliver the right outcomes. As a result, the committee is calling for the government to explore the impact of its reforms across a variety of areas, stating that housing cannot be treated in isolation.

These areas include the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, economic recovery from Covid-19, addressing climate change, improving sustainable transport provision and the delivery of economic infrastructure such as energy networks.

ICE fully agrees with the need to look at the bigger picture. As outlined in our 2019 State of the Nation report, infrastructure must be considered more strategically within the planning system instead of seeing it as something that comes about as a consequence of development.”




The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) response:

Paula Hewitt, ADEPT President said:

“ADEPT welcomes the conclusions of the HCLG committee’s report into the Government’s Planning White Paper. Public engagement is vital in any successful planning system and we share concerns that the proposed zonal approach lacks detail. The planning system should not become more centralised – places have different needs and ambitions – and we mustn’t lose the local democratic dimension. The social environmental and community benefits to development must be front and centre, not just housing numbers, and developers must be impelled to build the homes where planning permission has been secured. ADEPT welcomes government recognition that the planning system needs reform, but it must also be adequately resourced – many Local Planning Authorities already lack sufficient skills, capacity and funding. The Government’s planning proposals must align with its other policy agendas, such as public health, net zero and the Environment Bill, to help drive a green recovery and meet future work and travel patterns that have changed through the pandemic. In its current form, the White Paper is missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to place the climate and biodiversity emergencies at the heart of the English planning system.”




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