In this series of local government Q&As, Stephen Ottewell, Director of Planning and Building Control at Capita Local Public Services, interviews planning experts on hot topics in the sector, including the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges and opportunities facing planning teams and what local authorities can expect in 2021.
Today’s expert is Ken Bean, Associate Director of Planning Policy at Capita Local Public Services. Ken has an MA in town planning and more than 30 years’ experience of working on town planning-related matters. He currently advises Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council and is responsible for the management and performance of planning policy growth teams in Barnet, Manchester and Belfast.
Stephen: Hi Ken, thanks for joining me today. Let’s begin by talking about the key changes you’ve seen in the preparation of development plans, as local authorities adapt to radical new ways of working as a result of Covid-19.
Ken: Since the pandemic struck, the most obvious change we’ve seen has been the move to examining plans online or – in many cases – a hybrid model in which inspectors and council officers attend the examination venue in person and other witnesses attend virtually from home.
Based on our experience of appearing at recent examinations to support our local authority clients, the technology has generally worked very well. Indeed, the Planning Inspectorate reports anecdotally that shifting planning inquiries and examinations online has resulted in less posturing by participants and has helped to create a less hostile atmosphere for witnesses giving evidence.
What we’ve noticed is that witnesses tend to speak directly to the inspector rather than address the room, which makes for a much smoother process. This, in turn, assists inspectors by allowing them to get to the heart of the evidence quicker and easier.
Stephen: So that sounds like a change that could have been very challenging has turned out to be beneficial! What do you think are the main challenges that are facing planning teams regarding the preparation of local plans now? And how do you think planning professionals should prioritise and tackle them?
Ken: Apart from Covid-19, the other seismic event in the planning world this year was the publication in August of the Government’s long-awaited Planning for the Future White Paper, alongside a consultation on its proposals to streamline and modernise the current planning system. The consultation periods for these documents ended in October.
I think the Government’s key aim can be summed up as follows: to simplify and accelerate the planning process and, in so doing, to ensure that more new homes are built to address the housing crisis. But while they’re big on ideas, some of which are quite radical and potentially far reaching, I think the proposals to date fall short on the level of detail that would be needed to implement them fully. Undoubtedly, they present major challenges and risks to local authorities in particular and, indeed, to planning professionals more generally. However, we do see some real opportunities too, for example in terms of the encouragement and expectation of greater use of digital technology and design codes.
Specifically in terms of local plan preparation, our very strong advice to local authorities that are currently preparing plans under the present system is to not press the pause button, but to crack on and ensure that they get these plans adopted as speedily as possible.
Stephen: Let’s hope they take your advice! I’d like to turn now to the subject of innovation. What new innovations have you seen in local planning that have helped to create better outcomes for citizens?
Ken: I think that, in some ways, the pandemic has had a positive impact in terms of councils taking an innovative approach to making the planning process more efficient. As I’ve said, there are now much greater opportunities for people to join examination hearings remotely, thereby promoting accessibility and wider public engagement with the process. Moving to online examination hearings is making it much easier for participants to either engage directly, or simply view the hearing debates remotely, than it would be if they had to take a day off work or balance their physical attendance with other responsibilities.
The White Paper places a clear emphasis on the importance of PropTech – which can be summed up as the digital transformation of the construction and property industries – in driving planning reforms, with huge potential to bring efficiencies and consistency across local authorities. Although it will be challenging in terms of capturing data and implementing new systems of operation, it could build the foundations of a comprehensive, map-based interactive system that will improve community engagement and accessibility. With such a comprehensive data-driven system, the evidence base for planning policy could be simplified, ideally with a shared central-data system to allow better cross-boundary planning.
With these advances in technology, local plans could be produced much more quickly, with easier access to data, an interactive and agile evidence base and better visualisation to help communities engage and contribute to local-plan development throughout the process.
So, while the proposals for accessible, web-based local plans are to be welcomed, I think that many of the smaller local authorities will need to make significant investment in systems and skills, which will be challenging for a lot of them at a time when resources are scarce. In addition, people without access to technology shouldn’t be forgotten; they’re often members of our more deprived communities so this potential discrimination will also need to be addressed too when reforming the planning system.
Stephen: Can you tell me what you think the future looks like for local authority development plans and how planning teams and local authorities can prepare now?
Ken: The White Paper is clear that the Government’s intention is to change the system in a holistic manner by introducing new ideas and concepts. This includes an intention to speed up and simplify both the production and the role of local development plans and the management of planning applications. The emphasis is very much on outcomes focused on delivering housing development and detailed design proposals.
Frontloading the local plan process while simultaneously reducing the amount of time allowed is going to prove challenging for all parties involved in drafting, commenting on and contributing to local plans – not least the local authorities themselves.
Now that consultation on the White Paper has finished, the Government is doubtless busy analysing the responses and firming up which proposals to take forward in reforming the existing planning system. While the focus to date has been on big ideas rather than implementation details, we can expect to see new legislation introduced in 2021 as the Government develops those details.
I think that the proposed changes are quite radical in many ways and, if implemented, will require all of us in planning to embrace new ways of working and new skill sets. It also seems to me that it’s likely to require a significant step change in the resources needed to do this successfully.
Subject to the outcome of the consultation, I think we can expect to see policy changes brought forward during 2021. I would also anticipate further consultation on the details needed to make the proposals work in practice. In terms of policy, significant revisions and additions to the Government’s national planning policy – the NPPF and accompanying online guidance – will be needed.
Stephen: So what do you think the White Paper proposals are likely to mean for resolving strategic planning matters?
Ken: While the statutory Duty to Co-operate test introduced in 2010 has not been a perfect replacement for genuine sub-regional and regional planning, it has nevertheless acted as an impetus for co-operation. So I think that, if the test is to be removed, as the White Paper signals, it will need to be replaced by some form of binding sub-regional and regional arrangements for managing strategic cross-boundary matters. If the Government is not minded to reintroduce formal strategic planning arrangements at the regional level, perhaps something like a standing assembly of relevant partners will be needed, to agree memorandums of understanding on key matters to save time and unnecessary debate at examinations.