Roberta Blackman Woods BECG Roundtable

Creating a planning system that works: Labour’s Planning Commission

BECG recently held a Breakfast Roundtable with Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, the Shadow Planning Minister, to discuss and answer questions on the Labour Party’s Planning Commission. We were delighted to be joined by 20 senior stakeholders from housebuilders, developers and the planning sector.

At their 2018 Party Conference, the Labour Party announced a commission into the planning system, which covers all aspects of the planning process, including the necessary infrastructure to underpin new development and crucial aspects of any proposed development such as affordable housing. Led by Roberta, the Commission is far reaching, looking to create a new planning system that will both encourage new development as well as rebalance the economy.

Planning is a passion of Roberta’s – she has been Shadow Planning Minister on and off since 2011, and she has also sat on planning committees during her past life as a councillor in Oxford and Newcastle – and this could be the defining work of her political career.

BECG’s Roundtable gave Roberta an opportunity to share the Commission’s early findings, get feedback, and answer questions about the direction of the future policy.

Encouraging a plan-led system

Whatever the final recommendations are of the Labour Planning Commission, it’s clear that development plans will be a key driver. For Roberta it’s about ensuring that the plans make sense and work together. It’s expected that there will be four ‘tiers’ of plans: national, regional, local and ‘community’, which will replace Neighbourhood Plans. The new national plan will look at where infrastructure is needed, when it’s needed by, and who they might be funded, while the Community Plans – which will likely be at district ward level rather than parishes, will not be allowed to get away with palming development off on their neighbours, because they’ll have to have one too.

Getting communities excited by planning

Community plans are at the heart of Roberta’s mission to get everyone interested in planning, and feel that it works for their communities. The idea is to move away from “the tiny number of people who are involved in neighbourhood planning” to a situation where the wider community is involved, understands what they need to bring forward in their area, and use their local knowledge to set out how their community might be shaped moving forward. This is about ensuring that communities don’t think they can sit there can refuse development. To make sure this happens, communities will be given the resources they need to pull together a plan that works for the whole area, making it a possibility for communities that are not so affluent.

Housing as a tool to rebalance the economy

There was some agreement from our guests about the need for more ‘top-down’ housing numbers, and Roberta agreed. But the targets can be more than that – they can be a way to rebalance the economy. The view was that the formula currently used imposes significant new housing numbers where they’re already in demand, but actually housing could be used to redress the imbalance in the economy. For Roberta and the Commission, that’s key – as she puts it “one of the underline principles for our commission is we think the planning system needs to help us tackle inequality, it isn’t doing that at the moment, it is entrenching inequality and we want to use the planning system to help us do some regional rebalancing”. This means new infrastructure where it would be of most benefit, and new housing around. With the burden of new homes heavily weighted on the South East, and around the major cities, it will be interesting to see how this ‘rebalancing’ will be implemented, and whether developers and local authorities will be able to work together to do this.

Making sure planning applications are considered on time and on their merits

Increasing planning department resourcing is probably one of the most often repeated answers to the question of ‘how do we deliver more housing?’. And it’s something that Roberta was cognizant of, and sees the opportunity to go back to a position where planning departments not only had the skills and capacity, but also the desire to use development to improve communities: “if we are going to return planning to some of its more visionary routes, in terms of planning for the future and bringing communities with them, we need planners with those skills and unfortunately we have lost most of those skills as planning has become very technocratic”. Local fee setting might be an answer, but so too could be the direct funding by government of planning departments. Roberta would like to see this ring-fenced, though admits that might be a pipedream.

It’s fair to say that there is often some scepticism in the sector about what would happen if there was a Labour Government under Jeremy Corbyn – particularly after the recent publication of the policy paper Land for the Many. But we got the feeling that our guests left feeling more reassured by what they had heard – this is about creating a planning system that encourages development, that sets out what needs to be done and will hopefully make new development more palatable for communities. We encourage the whole sector to get involved.

You can submit your views to the Labour Planning Commission online to www.labourplanningcommission.co.uk.