2020 – The year government took planning away from the people 

2020 will be remembered for many things. The pandemic and flooding among them. It will also be remembered as the year they took planning away from the people. 

The government’s proposals in the white paper Planning for the Future and associated documents are bold. They will transfer many local planning powers from councils and communities to Whitehall and the planning inspectorate in Bristol. Ministers want planning by checklist instead of considered, albeit sometimes difficult, planning deliberations that lead to quality developments. 

There are sensible ideas in the government’s proposals but they are countered by its determination to take democracy and localism out of planning. 

In 2011, when the National Planning Policy Framework was first mooted, countryside and environmental campaign groups joined forces with professional bodies to oppose the framework’s most damaging measures. The ‘broadsheets’ covered the campaign daily. The Telegraph ran a “Hands Off Our Land” campaign. It has not been not like that in 2020 and the reaction to Planning for the Future has been muted. 

Perhaps people are still reeling with shock. After all, Planning for the Future doesn’t aim to fiddle with the planning system. It wants to shred it and replace it with new principles and different ways of working. (The proposals are explained in this CPRE briefing and video.) 

Local plans will be produced more quickly and will be simpler and shorter. That’s good. Design codes aimed at “building beautifully” will be introduced. That’s good. Ministers want to digitise the planning system. That’s also welcome. 

Our leaders complain the public doesn’t understand the planning system. This is their excuse for proposing to restrict community involvement to the local plan stage. That’s the stage at which England’s urban and rural landscapes will be allocated into one of three zones. Under this scheme, building will be limited within Protected Areas such as AONBs and national parks. But in Growth and Renewal Areas, councils will be expected to approve any development that ticks whatever boxes were agreed with the planning inspectorate at local plan stage. In these areas, residents will have no role in individual planning decisions. Council planning committees will become an irrelevance.

Ministers and their advisers rage against the discretionary character of the planning system. Discretion is localism to you and me but ministers want local plans to set inviolate rules instead of outlining planning policies capable of interpretation and flexibility as needed. Development management policies – the rules that control how local plans are implemented – will be nationalised. One set of rules for all regardless of how well they fit local communities. 

Local plans will be pro-forma. At one extreme of the government’s options, there will be no right for communities and councils to be heard during the examination of the plans.

Of course, our current planning system is too complex. Of course, it needs simplifying. But that should not be at the expense of local voices. Changes should not transfer power from local communities to the anonymous corridors of Whitehall and Bristol. 

Instead, ministers must stop giving lip service to localism and ensure local democratic debate remains at  the heart of our planning system. We must trust community voices. 

The white paper, Planning for the Future, does the opposite and aims to destroy localism in planning. 

The consultation on Planning for the Future runs until and the consultation on Changes to the current planning system until 1 October 2020. 

A second article on the implications of these proposals for housing will be published tomorrow.


* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • There are some very worrying precedents being set by this government and while I do not have the words or the knowledge to counter all that is going on with governance of our country I do know that I feel mightily uncomfortable with the way things are going and so should the rest of the populace. I hope the opposition, in all it’s forms, can find it’s voice before too long and before it is too late.

  • The greater good seems to be the mantra that local councils use in planning, there is no democracy for the individual unless you know someone important (and even then may have to bribe them).

    Do agree that the government’s aim appears to be to take as much power back from Brussels and councils as possible and then dominate people’s lives, giving them as little recourse as possible whilst whispering sweet-nothings into their ears… not sure that it will make much difference in the planning realm, people will still be done over if it is deemed in the greater interest of society.

    The Liberal philosophy presumably is that you should be allowed to do whatever you like to your property as long as it harms no-one else, which would mean ramping down council planning dept’s, leaving them mostly to deal with new buildings?

  • John Marriott 12th Sep '20 - 5:28pm

    If Adolf Hitler had wanted to invent a local government committee it would have been planning. I sat on one for most of the 18 years that I was a District Councillor and, at times, you really did feel that you had the power of life or death.

    OK, we clearly don’t want a planning free for all. However, we do need a bit of imagination and the ability to think outside the box – and it’s boxes surrounded by postage stamp lawns that appear to be getting built everywhere.

    I have a great fear that all the new legislation will do is to give even more power to developers to build not what communities need but rather what rakes them in the most money. As for sustainable infrastructure to go hand in hand with house building, what’s that?

  • A Tory government plans to nationalise the planning system. I though nationalisation was bad?

  • I am a huge supporter of local democracy. I would have Community Forums, devolve decisions down to first tier councils, the lot ! But.
    The only time you can get many people interested in their community is when somebody wants to put half a dozen houses up in the village. They care about their view, their house price and to be honest they don’t have the slightest interest in the bigger picture, the homeless, the couple who would love their own place. Build by all means, but don’t build around here. I hate to use the “N” word, but I’m going to.
    At some point even the most liberal of us have to take a more utilitarian view and conclude that your right to say “No to housing” is trumped by our fellow citizens right to a roof over their head.

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