The interim report from the Raynsford Review boldly claims “to question all of the foundational propositions of the planning system, including whether we need the system at all”.
It sets out to design a new system, not contribute to the “endless tinkering” of which it is so critical – and yet it turns out to be something of a damp squib.
The review’s new planning system is based around nine ‘propositions’, many of which are truisms – who could disagree with “planning in the public interest” or “planning with a purpose”? We would all love a system operated by visionary planners too; in fact, they already exist, but are all too often under-funded and over-worked. Other propositions are no more than a description of what we already have. National policy is clear that we have a plan-led system, for example.
The changes it does propose are, ultimately, more tinkering. It’s difficult to see how enshrining a ‘right to a home’ or a legal obligation to plan for the needs of the future will move things forward that much.
In some areas, the review does propose radical change, notably around the fashionable idea of land value capture. We already have a system of land value capture, of course, which operates through SDLT, capital gains tax, corporation tax, the community infrastructure levy and section 106 agreements. Simplification of that regime would be welcome, although the proposed three-tier approach represents evolution rather than revolution.
Other changes are about reasserting control over areas where it has been lost. There is an almost pathological dislike of permitted development rights – despite its relative success – and permission in principle is criticised. It provides no examples of areas in which planning controls could be relaxed.
There is contradiction in here, too; a regional tier of planning would be re-introduced to supplement the neighbourhood, local and national levels we already have, along with new development corporations dealing with particular issues.
Yet the review also criticises the complexity of the current system. Similarly, the desire to increase public involvement and accountability seems at odds with the re-introduction of the more remote level of regional planning that was abolished, in part, to restore local accountability.
Almost as interesting as what is included is what isn’t. If the aim is a reimagining of the planning system, it seems sensible to look at how other countries operate. Although that work is apparently under way, it isn’t complete and hasn’t influenced the report, which is a missed opportunity. There are other parts of the system that warrant rethinking that the review ignores altogether. It fails to grasp the nettle of green-belt policy, for example.
That fact that the review ultimately suggests minor changes isn’t a surprise. Despite the rhetoric in the report’s introduction, the planning system we have isn’t that bad. The main problems lie in how it functions. It is hard to operate a plan-led system in York when it last adopted one in 1954, for example. The same is true of the 56% of planning authorities that have not adopted a plan in the six years since the NPPF was introduced.
There is no doubt that the English planning system could be improved, so anything that contributes to that debate is welcome. The Raynsford Review does, but fails to live up to its billing as a radical re-imagining of the system. It’s just a recipe for more tinkering.