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The Levelling Up White Paper

The Levelling Up White Paper published in February acknowledged that reform of the planning system is required; but bearing in mind the strong commitments made to overhauling the planning system there was a startling absence of detail. A policy vacuum exists that continues to create uncertainty, impacting on the progress of Local Plans and the delivery of news homes in particular.

The development industry has long been pushing for the ‘principle’ of development to be established through the Local Plan process. This would involve each local planning authority creating growth areas in their Local Plans, within which any sites would automatically be granted outline planning permission for the principle of development following adoption of the Plan. The 2020 Planning White Paper, Planning for the Future, which until this week was set to be the basis for a radical new Planning Bill, proposed that after adoption of the Local Plan there would be “no need to submit a further planning application to test whether the site can be approved”.

Many backbench MPs had raised concerns that the proposals would mean reduced scrutiny by local elected councillors over individual planning applications and less public involvement in the planning process. Defeat at the Chesham and Amersham by-election last year also focused Ministers’ minds over planning reform and development on greenfield land in particular. The Levelling Up White Paper’s focus on brownfield prioritisation is not new and has been the policy of successive Governments over the last thirty years. Whilst brownfield sites are important, unfortunately the strategy of ‘brownfield first’ has failed to tackle the housing crisis, in fact it exacerbated the crisis. And the air of uncertainty around planning reforms will make matters yet worse to come.

Now Michael Gove has apparently told MPs that the Government will not bring forward a Planning Bill, and that the growth zone proposals have been scrapped. According to the Daily Telegraph , Gove told 45 Conservative MPs at a private meeting, "That he had decided not to proceed with a major separate piece of planning legislation to put the reforms into law. Instead, more limited changes to planning rules will be incorporated as part of a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which will be set out in the Queen's Speech in the spring."

It remains to be seen whether the more controversial aspects of the White Paper are being watered down following back pedalling from a Government trying to appease MPs following months of firefighting on all fronts.

The likely ‘tidying up’ is a stark change of direction following the 2019 election where the Government, riding high on the back of political success in the North and Midlands, put forward an ambitious reform of the planning system. Levelling Up promised to deliver improvements to those areas of the country that have undeniably been left behind following decades of a lack of investment and strategic thinking.

Roll on forward three years later and this Government, like many previous Governments, has found that planning continues to be a political hot potato. Ambitious reforms reduced to a bit of ‘tidying up’ of the planning system through levelling up legislation, are not what is required to address the real issues of inequality, a lack of productivity and economic competitiveness from those regions in the country that have been left behind.

Stability and leadership at the top are also required. There have been six Secretary of States for Communities and Local Government and 12 Housing Ministers since the Conservatives took power in 2010. The revolving door that we have seen at the housing ministry has not helped provide the stability and focus required to successfully understand and tackle the housing and planning brief.

Ambition, joined-up thinking across Government, investment in local authority planning departments and following through on genuine reform to the planning system are what is needed now to ‘level up’. That means delivering decent affordable homes, in the right locations, close to economic opportunities, where people want to live and work.

What is evident is that this Government has lost both its ambition and the political capital to follow through on the reforms that it proposed when it first took office. It is a huge political challenge and one that the Levelling Up White Paper does not go far enough to address.

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