The Government has proposed the biggest set of changes to the UK’s planning system in decades with its recent Planning White Paper.

In the first of a series of insights into the White Paper and associated reform, we look at some of the key issues for local authorities.

One of the most significant changes proposed to the planning system is the introduction of land use zoning. The White Paper outlines a simplistic zoning approach, with just three categories: growth, renewal and protected areas.

Many countries have adopted a zoning system within their planning framework; however, they don’t take a universal approach, with each established on different underpinning determinants. Their zoning structures also vary; they may be set at national, regional or local level or they may be hierarchical. Quite often they’re not applied across entire towns or cities but in targeted areas. Zones within zones or overlaying zones may be more appropriate to deal with complex land uses in metropolitan cities.

Although zonal systems have operated effectively in many other countries and offer greater consistency and certainty for land use, the simplistic nature of the White Paper’s proposals will need to be backed up with clear parameters and standards within the classifications. They shouldn’t just be an easy way to cut red tape.

The White Paper emphasises supporting greater community engagement at an early stage of the planning process. To achieve this, the planning process will need to be very detailed to make sure that planners, as well as the general public, fully understand the system and associated zones.

Furthermore, stage three of the local plan process outlined in the White Paper proposes that local plans should be published for public comment at the same time as they’re submitted for examination. This seems to neglect the opportunity for councils to consider public consultation responses and then make appropriate changes to the final plan before submitting it. Although it seems that the inspector will consider public responses, it’s difficult to see how this proposal will enable councils to create meaningful engagement with their local communities.

There’s also an important issue of building and maintaining trust within communities, which must be founded on a transparent engagement process that allows citizens to contribute at key stages of the planning process.

One of the biggest challenges facing local authorities right now is the Government’s lack of guidance so far about transitional arrangements and the time available to implement them. There’s great uncertainty, particularly for planning policy teams, as local authorities assess their position and the effects of new legislation on their existing local development schemes.

It would certainly be counter-intuitive to the Government’s aspirations to speed up plan-making if councils were to stall progress on their local plans. However, there is a concern that ongoing work may prove to be unnecessary   until there is greater clarity on transitional arrangements.

A further important consideration for the next stage of the Government’s communication about the transition is the possibility of adopting a new approach that can give authorities time to prepare for the changes while continuing to advance their plans and evidence base. With such significant changes proposed, the Government needs to give greater assurance that it’s making the right decisions and changes and that authorities are adequately prepared, skilled and resourced to embrace them effectively once they’re introduced.

Key to the implementation of such radical reform is to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible and does not cause greater delays in getting up-to-date local plans in place. Capita has been advising local planning authorities up and down the country on how best to progress their plans, some already significantly well advanced. Get in touch if this is something you would like to find out more about.

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