The impact of planning reform on the value and importance of masterplans

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Date Published

18/08/2021

Reading time

4 mins read

Author

Martin Craddock

The government has proposed many changes to the planning system in England in its White Paper ‘Planning for the future’(1). A small, but intriguing, element of the proposed reforms is that major sites will now need to have masterplans.

The paper indicates the government’s intention to legislate a requirement for masterplans and for site-specific codes to be agreed between developers and local councils. If this proposal survives into the forthcoming Planning Act, it will effectively introduce an additional stage of masterplan and design guidance preparation: undertaken either in parallel with the plan making process or shortly after. The changes have the potential to greatly improve standards in the delivery of major developments, but also pose substantial challenges for planning departments and the development industry. Alongside the White Paper proposals, the government’s National Design Guide and Model Design Code(2) both reference masterplans as part of the development process.

Substantially more is known about and expected from a ‘master-planned’ site than a site simply allocated for development within a local plan. The role of a masterplan is to provide another level of certainty regarding the likely development of a site or area, including the layout, design and characteristics. Whilst masterplans have long been a tool to support the planning and development process, in England the role of planning has focused on the management of growth through application of rules or policies for development. This is the planning system that evolved from the earliest principles for protecting and improving health and wellbeing through minimum housing and environmental standards. Masterplans, by contrast, are more interventionist, fine grained tools that are used on a less formal basis to shape change. They may be drawn upon where necessary to deliver growth but have never been an integral part of the national planning system.

Over the years, the planning system has become more subjective (requiring expert analysis and appraisal) whilst the challenges and issues to be addressed through major new development have become more complex and challenging – or at least I am sure that is how it feels to many of us!

That’s why, despite their current informal status in national planning, masterplans have been increasingly required by councils that want to bring forward major development sites. Local councils need to secure design quality and infrastructure delivery whilst addressing the growing housing delivery challenge. The new national design guidance and the proposed introduction of a legislative requirement to prepare masterplans can be expected to supercharge this trend and vastly increase the number of masterplans and design codes that councils will need to prepare.

Achieving this, whilst also delivering new local plans that are highly map based, digital and standardised, is likely to place significant challenges on planning teams’ existing skills set and resource capacity. Full blooded implementation of the government’s current proposals would see masterplans elevated to a position of key importance in the development process, with planning authorities setting out more detail about more sites at an earlier stage than ever before. But it would also form part of an overall reduction in the role of development management and decision making at the point of delivery.

However, it is clear this is a challenge that planning services across the country will work hard to meet, so they can continue to put the right measures in place for growth. Amongst the ongoing changes, planning’s central role in driving forward the delivery of sustainable development to meet ever growing demands for new homes, employment and the challenge of responding to climate change and supporting nature recovery will remain constant. Within Capita, our planning teams are looking ahead with a mixture of trepidation about the scale of change that could occur and excitement about the opportunities for better and more effective outcomes that successfully implemented change could bring.

Whilst there is currently some uncertainty about the final form of the government’s planning reforms, it is possible that the more radical White Paper proposals could be watered down. With measures already introduced through the government’s design orientated reforms, it seems likely that the importance and value of masterplans and design guidance as a vital element in the planning process will continue to grow. Whatever happens next, our teams are ready to draw on our skills and experience in masterplanning, collaborative working, design and infrastructure planning to support our clients and partnerships.

The White Paper proposal would therefore see a shift from a planning system founded upon managing development proposals to one where major delivery is achieved through a collaborative approach between developers (including landowners and housebuilders) and the local planning authority.

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Written by

Martin Craddock

Martin Craddock

Team Leader for Planning Policy

Martin has over 15 years’ experience in plan making, and sustainability appraisal with a particular focus in that time on housing, delivery of major sites and placemaking. Martin has been with Capita since 2012 and supported the work of planning policy teams across the country including North Tyneside, Hambleton and Trafford.

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