View all events

2020 SUMMER DEBATE: The Planning System

Monday 6 July 2020

Sarah Williams
The Architecture Club member

To watch the debate, click here

Is the planning system working?

The second debate was held on zoom and was well attended with 73 attendees participating in the event.

With the government announcing the most radical reforms to the UK planning system since World War II as part of the PM’s ‘Project Speed’ plan (Aka build build build!) the debate addressed whether the planning system was working and if it was achieving the right balance between creative place shaping, economics and regulatory control?

Preceding the discussions, a poll was taken to assess the mood in the room:

Yes 26%
No 55%
Undecided 18%

Representing the motion were Victoria Hills, Chief Executive of Royal Town Planning institute and Steve Quartermain, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government with Paul Finch, of Architects Journal and Roger Zogolovitch of Solid Space opposing. Peter Murray was chairing the discussions.

For the motion

Planning is not broken.

Fundamentally the proof is evident that the system is working. A record number of homes were built last year (over 230,000) with about 500,000 planning applications submitted every year. Eighty seven percent of applications are approved on time and one third of all appeals are successful. Less than 2% were overturned at a local level, so for local communities and elected members, planning is working. However, we know that polls often show dissatisfaction with the system, but could this be down to self-centric views, which often prevail?

In fact, there is much to admire: whilst homes are being delivered and awards for good design are won, heritage buildings are protected, conservation areas preserved, biodiversity and habitat enhanced, and our countryside protected. This is planning’s legacy.

Perhaps the question should therefore be: Is the system working well?

Sir Peter Hall recognised that there was a difference between what was actually planned and the process for achieving it, and this is still true today. Although some people argue that the planning system is too slow, too expensive and demands too much evidence, none of this demonstrates that the system is not working in terms of its purpose. It’s not the system that’s at fault but the way it is delivered. We should actually rejoice in its ambition!

The UK planning system is held in very high regard throughout the world. No other system enjoys the probity and ethics of the standard charter, but it needs to be better resourced, nurtured and supported, not berated and castigated.

Planning tools exist to help create great place making but they are not used widely enough, such as local development orders. Take London’s spatial plan as an example. London today is very different from the London of 20 years ago and the strategic plan has been a powerful contributor to its success.

Ditching planning requirements now is at odds with the government’s stated ambition to build more beautifully, is at odds with democratic scrutiny and like permitted development rights, could result in the derogation of standards and a return to slum homes.

The problem is that the planning system has not been given the emphasis it deserves. Successive governments have ducked the issue. Perhaps the answer lies in creating a national approach to planning to deal with strategic and fundamental issues. Stewardship is needed, demonstrated at places like Welwyn Garden city, whilst collaboration between planners, clients, communities and built environment professionals is critical.

It’s time to get behind the system, particularly when looking forward to a post covid, post Brexit world and one in which we are serious about tackling the climate emergency.

Against the motion

The planning system is broken

It’s the housebuilders who are gaming the system (an ‘Oligopoly’ in housebuilding’), with evidence of land hoarding and the construction of random luxury towers that has everything to do with profits and little to do with creating affordable places to live.

The system has an increasing focus on financial negotiations between public authorities and developers. Where once planning was regarded as a province of health and something that was good for our citizens, it’s now an economic game, stinging the developer for some form of betterment, with the resulting impacts on the built form. It is as if the planner is doing the developer a favour by allowing them to deliver something that is very much needed by society.

There are many other agendas loaded onto the system and this, with an increase in complexity, all results in added expense and delay. This, in turn, reduces the required resource that is needed for intelligent planning, resulting in the participants often giving up the fight for quality, having fought the system for too long.

Specialist advice on any project, big or small, is required on everything from townscape, transport, affordable housing, arboriculture, acoustics, flood, ecology and many other issues, no matter the size of the development. The requirements of the system are disproportionate and are blind to some of the current challenges of our changing market. The delays are a drag on productivity and the prosperity of this country, whilst the expense drives up prices and reduces the numbers of affordable homes.

The system lacks transparency and is open to corruption. Some have called the taxes such as Cil payments ‘legalised bribes’ and arguably all of this has pushed up the price of land, leading to denser developments and battles between planners and planning consultants. Close combat fighting has ensued.

The system at large is not working properly, and this is evidenced by a massive housing shortage, applications that are tied up in development control red tape, backlogs in the appeals system and with developers afraid to voice concern about the absurdities in the requirements, which have little to do with spatial planning. And why do government think it’s so essential to reform the system? None of these requirements have anything to do with how spatial planning was understood by previous generations of urban planners such as Abercrombie or Lord Reith, (the first minster of town and planning.)

The system needs to be simplified, needs to work at all scales, should encourage off-site construction, should meet the needs of a post Covid society, should tackle zero carbon and be nimble to meet a changing environment for living and working. We need visionary planning that moves away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Free up the system so we can get on and build with a focus on delivery.

Final poll

Yes 34%
No 58%
Undecided 8%


All speakers seemed to agree that the planners themselves, their institutes or their aspirations were not at fault but rather the system itself. However, the views then ranged from a system that’s not perfect, but still working, to the belief that we have created a monster that needs radical reform. The relationship between spatial planning, economic demand and social outcomes seems to have become entangled which is arguably at the heart of the issue.

The debate felt quite London centric at times and the practicalities of actually delivering a project and the day to day requirements for practitioners appeared to be in stark contrast with the intent that lies behind the system. Whilst wanting to provide more social housing and beautiful places to live and work, the planning system appears to be frustrating this aspiration and making negotiations protracted, expensive and combative. However, despite the system, good buildings and places are still being delivered but obviously not enough of them.

Clearly, planning has been under-resourced for years with 40% cuts over the last few years. This is evident in the frustration of applicants who often deal with a revolving door of planning officers and therefore a lack of consistent advice, delay and added cost.

It was also argued that all too often elected committees pander to cheap populism that can affect good decision making but democratic scrutiny and decisions are part of the process, even if the answers might not be welcome.

As we begin to emerge from the current crises and face towards the next, arguably more catastrophic crisis of climate change, it’s perhaps time for our planning system to become more agile in its ability to respond to the challenges we face. Let’s hope that any reform doesn’t hand the power to those that have no interest in creating the sustainable and beautiful places that we all deserve.