Flexibility could make planning key to economic growth

2020 has seen planning face its biggest reform in 73 years – since the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.

But the problem with planning is that it is only ever a snapshot in time.

This was one of the views expressed at a recent planning round table hosted by TheBusinessDesk.com in partnership with international law firm CMS.

Speakers at the event also said the flexibility being added to the planning process could have the biggest impact.

Peter Henry, regional director for Yorkshire & Central at Harworth Group, explained: “It’s very difficult to move from that planning permission to actual delivery.

“In fact, where the planning system can come unstuck, particularly around large scale developments is that move from planning to delivery.”

Henry added that particularly within the North, there are some unique challenges in terms of the viability of developments.

He said planning needs to consider and recognise that large scale projects may take “10 or 15 years and [planning] needs to evolve and carry on through that entire delivery period.”

This sentiment was echoed by Beth McQue, planning and development manager at Keyland Developments.

She said: “The planning stage can often be the simplest, with the challenges coming in the funding and delivery stages particularly when working in trickier parts of the region where land values aren’t as high.”

For Richard Frudd, director at planning consultancy Quod, this is where there is a real opportunity.

He said: “One of things we can control in the region is actually ensuring we take a step back to recognise we have these big regeneration schemes potentially there and thinking about how we approach them from the planning side.

“By that I mean, let’s be pragmatic and sensible, and not assume developers are trying to do something sneaky and ultimately try to work together to get these things moving. As that’s a relatively easy win for [the region] and can help build some real momentum across the North.”

The point of changing how we approach planning was picked up by Rebecca Roffe a partner at CMS who explained: “All planning reform focuses on reforming the planning system itself, but never really thinks about where does planning fit in to delivering sustainable economic growth.”

The papers Roffe says talk about supporting economic growth, which “starts way before [planning is granted] and ends way after it”.

But in reality, she said the documents are focused on the process of delivering planning consent and not the bigger picture.

Mike Slater, who is the assistant director for planning and public protection at York City Council, said in his personal opinion, at the heart of any region’s strategy there needs to be the “relationship between land use, planning, economy and transport.”

He added that perhaps that is where the role of unitary authorities can be helpful, as district councils don’t have the input to deal with transport or economy that can be gleaned from creating larger unitary authorities.

So is the answer to create a single planning framework for the North?

The panel unanimously said “no”, but Chris Bowes a partner at CMS said: “Setting an agenda that assumes we’re all in parts of Hampshire and Surrey and not in parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester, doesn’t quite work.

“My plea would be for us to get back to a much clearer level of regional planning so neighbouring authorities don’t duplicate investment, so you don’t end up having two tech hubs within five miles of each other or you don’t have incompatible developments adjacent to one another.”

Looking further ahead he added: “I’d like to see the future lying with much more devolution of planning powers.

“Perhaps hopefully even, as Wales and Scotland have their own planning regime overall, I think there would be a case for having a different planning system outside of London.”

Ultimately it appears all parties; lawyers, developers, local authorities and planning consultants are united in their feeling that to truly transform planning practices, we need to bring flexibility into the process.