The national debate on planning reform has tended to focus on how we can build more homes, with less attention given to the employment uses needed to create sustainable communities and jobs for local residents.
However, a joint Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Department for Transport call for evidence on planning for freight and logistics indicates that policymakers are starting to recognise the importance of planning for warehouse space, which post-Covid is seen as critical national infrastructure and a key enabler of employment and growth.
The call for evidence differs from a typical government consultation in that it does not include any concrete proposals for reform, but rather seeks views on the practical challenges on the ground. The intention is that the evidence provided by stakeholders will then inform potential changes to national planning policy next year through the wider review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
A key point highlighted in our response is the failure of the plan-led system to plan effectively for industrial and logistics. Local plan cycles are simply not able to keep pace with the fast-changing nature of market demand. We argue that one policy solution would be to introduce a criteria-based ‘national presumption in favour of logistics development’. This would allow logistics development to come forward outside formal local plan cycles in circumstances where the development is clearly justifiable. It is worth noting that such mechanisms already exist in authorities well versed in planning for logistics.
A further challenge is the lack of a consistent approach across authorities. Our response includes examples of three authorities with a similar need for industrial and logistics space but with very different land allocations for warehousing in their plans. It may be the case that digitisation of planning can bring more consistency and ensure that real-time market information is used to determine the amount and type of employment space included.
In addition, in the absence of any form of strategic planning, there are simply no effective structures in place to compel authorities to work together to plan for this type of employment need. Larger sites tend to attract national and international businesses from high-productivity sectors such as logistics, engineering and manufacturing, and as such a failure to plan for this space will act as a drag on economic growth. We suggest amending planning policies to compel authorities traversed by the strategic transport network to plan for strategic sites separately to local employment sites so these different types of need can both be met.
With a general election on the horizon, there is still uncertainty around how national planning reform could be brought forward. However, all political parties should agree that the planning system is ultimately a driver of economic growth. Bringing about a more positive planning framework for our industrial and logistics uses would be in the country’s long-term interest – particularly those areas the government has pledged to support through levelling up.
Sam Bensted is assistant director at the British Property Federation