Can UK legislative reforms rebuild public trust in planning?

Legislative planning reform is imminent in the United Kingdom. These changes will bring about a higher degree of public consultation, though that comes with its own challenges.

Waning public trust in planning

The stark conclusion from the Grosvenor Group’s 2019 discussion paper, Rebuilding Trust, was that ‘the public doesn’t trust the planning system. Nor does it trust private developers.’ It was found that only 7% of people trust their local council to make decisions regarding large-scale developments that are beneficial to their community. This exemplifies the primary concern facing future planning developments, that public consultation is either insufficient or is lacking appropriateness.

This is not necessarily the fault of the developers, as there exists little, if any, national guidance on how such consultation should occur, let alone the sorts of questions that should be asked. Although local authorities are required, by law, to undertake a formal period of public consultation, it remains unclear how this is intended to be achieved.

Public consultation tends to focus predominantly on ‘soft’ issues, such as community benefits and the layout of a new development. While it is true that these are the aspects that will most affect local people, this nonetheless excludes public participation regarding concerns such as sustainability, policy requirements, and Local Plan. Where attempts have been made to involve the public in earlier stages of consultation, in order to include these larger-scale issues, questions have either been difficult for the layman to fully understand or so closed as to limit any genuine viewpoints.

Engaging your community from the very start

Any consultation that does occur with the public is ordinarily too late to have much of an impact. By the time the local residents are asked their opinion, more formal rounds of consultation (for example, with local authorities and master planners) have already happened, and so the decisions are more or less already made. This is illustrated by Penny Norton in her e-book, People in Planning:

‘99% [of people] have formed their views before reading any information that the consultation offers.’

Therefore, the main issues facing public consultation regarding planning in the UK are:

Legislation sparks change in public consultation

The Planning Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2021, generating the white paper, Planning for the Future, which is to be progressed through the Bill. The primary focus of the Planning Bill is to ‘streamline’ the planning process. This will reduce the amount of obligatory documentation and justification required under Local Plans, and allow for a national strategic development system.

The Planning Bill is to be in place in England only and will allow for the building of 300,000 new homes per year (1,000,000 by the end of Parliament). Local authorities will be asked to designate all land in their jurisdiction as being either Growth, Renewal, or Protected. The latter will not be able to be built on, whereas Growth areas will be those not previously developed, and Renewal spaces brownfield areas to be redeveloped.

Building trust through more efficient planning

The Government claim that the current planning system, first derived by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, is too complicated and allows for too much discretion. To exemplify this, 36% of applications for major developments, and 30% for minor developments, are overturned at appeal, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Furthermore, more than 80% of planning authorities agree with the statement that planning obligations cause unnecessary delays to the process.

However, the question arises of whether this would lead to more or less public consultation. The Government insists that the Planning Bill will make consultation more accessible to twenty-first-century citizens, allowing the voices of younger people – those who may be more affected – to be heard. Conversely, critics of the planned overhaul have said that it will be ‘a threat to local democracy’ with decision-making being taken out of the hands of local authorities. They have argued that, rather than improving the consultation process, it will enable landowners and developers the opportunity to rush through consent, making decisions that are detrimental to communities.

Better practice consultation in planning

In her ebook, based on interviews with planning experts across the UK, Penny Norton explained how the three-tier land zoning system may well be beneficial, but that consultation would be negatively affected by the Planning Bill. Skepticism has arisen about the notion of consultation occurring at a strategic level, as this will remove input from local areas and will make it difficult to encourage people to share opinions on issues that are not necessarily pertinent to them or their area.

Ultimately, planning consultation should allow all stakeholders to have their voices heard. Overall, the Planning for the Future white paper seems unlikely to meet this requirement in an appropriate manner. The suggestions of improved clarity are welcome, as these should help to reduce the current distrust between local people and developers; however, strategic level planning and consultation do not allow for the individualization that consultation requires to build public trust in planning. Arguably, local authorities who consult well sharing best practice tactics and strategies would be more appropriate. Such authorities use a combination of closed questions for data analysis and open questions for deeper insights. Viewpoints are properly considered and in a timely manner.

Join Penny Norton, Planning Consultant and Specialist, and Jonathan Bradley, Head of Business and Practice UK, in an upcoming webinar on Wednesday 29 September to take a deeper dive into how to universally raise the standards of public consultation. Register now!

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