Why LAs should invest in better planning

Dr Michael Harris, deputy head of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) explains why, even in difficult circumstances, better planning could be one of the best investments that local authorities could make

All local services have been under significant pressure over the past few years, from a combination of rising demand and reduced resources. For understandable reasons, the crisis in social care has received the most coverage, but it’s planning and development that has been the hardest hit of all.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that planning and development in England alone have been cut by an average of 59 per cent since 2009-10 – in real terms by more than £1.47 billion. In Scotland, planning has been hit slightly less (by 31 per cent), but in Wales the reductions have been on average more than 50 per cent.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has looked at the extent of cuts in the North West of England. Even here, with the investment required to build the Northern Powerhouse, more than a third of planning staff having been lost since 2009-10.

Local authorities face extremely difficult choices, so why prioritise seemingly less critical and less visible planning and development over other frontline services where needs are acute and growing?

Planners as a profession haven’t always been very forward in making the case for what they do. The RTPI’s view is clear though: cuts to planning have been a false economy. Investing in better planning to deliver not just housing but infrastructure and transport, access to jobs, public services and other amenities, benefits the economy, health and the environment. In other words, investing in better places can achieve a range of policy objectives shared by local and national government – and indeed local communities.

Here are five reasons why we need to invest in planning, even in the context of (and in some cases because of) the pressures facing local government.

Cuts to planning are hindering housing and development
Planners have undoubtedly been doing more with less, as the mantra goes, but now cuts are inhibiting the development we need. Our own research in the North West evidenced what our members have been telling us for some time: in many places, local planning services are surviving mostly on the goodwill and professional integrity of planning officers. Over-worked and under-resourced departments are not sustainable, but this is also bad for development.

On the surface, things might look okay. In the year ending September 2016, English districts granted more than 380,000 planning permissions, up four per cent from the previous year. Planners are also working quickly; in the latest available figures, covering July-September 2016, 85 per cent of major applications were decided within 13 weeks or within agreed timescales, compared with 80 per cent in the same quarter the year before.

The problem though is that these permissions don’t always translate, or translate quickly enough, into houses getting built. The government is trying to address the reasons why (including the structure of the housebuilding sector) though its Housing White Paper, which was published in February 2017.

The RTPI welcomed the White Paper as the start of a better approach to housing policy, but what we really need (as also recognised by the government) are local authorities that are able to play a more active role in development, through stronger local planning and land assembly. It’s this type of role for local government that explains why there’s more housebuilding in parts of continental Europe.

Cuts to local planning departments have eroded their ability to drive development in these ways – experienced staff have left or retired, and there’s much less capacity for strategic planning and planning policy development. The answer doesn’t lie in more ‘efficiencies’. Many local authorities have already introduced outsourcing, mergers, shared services and more customer-focused processes.

Thankfully, the government is listening and has announced its intention to allow local authorities to increase planning fees by 20 per cent from July 2017. This will help, but obviously can’t make up for cuts made over many years. The answer, difficult though it may be, is for local authorities to reinvest in their planning departments by recognising the value of planning not only to meet housing needs but to benefit their local economies and communities more broadly.

Better planning means stronger local economies
Most obviously, there’s the economic benefit from house building. According to research by Savills, a substantial increase in house building of 100,000 homes a year would create jobs, boost tax revenues and cut government borrowing by £23 billion over the life of a Parliament. Much of the benefit from housebuilding benefits the local economy as well, for example through hiring local labour.

It’s also about the quality of development. Research from RICS has demonstrated how better design increases the long-term value of development, by between five to more than 50 per cent. More broadly, place quality is crucial to the longer-term success of our towns and cities – attracting investment and businesses, and retaining younger people who otherwise are forced to move elsewhere for opportunities.

Cuts have particularly harmed the ability of planning teams to shape, rather than just react to, development proposals. This undermines not only the extent but also the quality and attractiveness of development, and so the economic value of places. In other words, we’re throwing away money from development – just one of the false economies of planning cuts.

In the context of Brexit and the need to do more for communities and regions that feel left behind, perhaps the best way to rebalance our economy might not be national strategies made in Westminster so much as investing in places, including through better planning. The devolution agenda for cities has been long overdue and the ‘devolution dividend’ could be significant – up to £222 billion by 2030 according to one report – but planning will be critical to its success.

Better development also means better communities
Good planning produces wider social benefits that improve lives and save the taxpayer money. To take just one dimension of this, healthier places reduce the costs of ill health. It’s been estimated that poor quality housing costs the NHS at least £760 million and society £1.9 billion annually. How much could we reduce the pressure on over-stretched health services by investing not in in higher quality housing, but in healthier places generally?

The RTPI has been making the case that planning can also help to reduce poverty and inequality. The focus of debates on welfare and worklessness tends to be on individuals, to the neglect of how the built environment can also play a critical role. To take just one example from our research, well-designed regeneration in Glasgow has helped to reduce unemployment and income deprivation by a third.

Most recently, we’ve been looking at how better designed places can help the more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, with that figure set to increase to one million people by the early 2020s. Again, here’s a way to reduce rising social care costs and improve people’s lives though better planning.

In short, a lack of planning harms poorer communities most; more and better planning is a critical but overlooked means to promote social justice, fairness and opportunity. It can also save money.

Good planning reduces NIMBYISM
So much of the debate on housing has focused on how we might circumvent local resistance to development, so-called NIMBYISM. But what’s often ignored is that what local residents can fear is not development itself but poor quality development – badly-designed, insensitive to place, environmentally destructive and lacking accompanying infrastructure, public services and amenities.

In other words, resistance to development means that people care about where they live. That’s a good thing. Instead of trying to reduce the ability of communities to inform development, we should be engaging with communities more to understand what they want – essentially, better planning of places – and ensuring that they get it.

Planning is critical to future local finances
Lastly, how to begin to square the funding circle? Recognising planning as a long-term investment in people and places is the first step. But in the shorter-term planners need to be more assertive in identifying how what they do already boosts local finances, and so why reinvesting in planning is fair as well as smart.

Planning services have been an increasingly significant source of income for authorities, not just through application fees but also through initiatives such as the New Homes Bonus. They bring in significantly more than they spend. With the forthcoming devolution of business rates, good planning will become even more important to more sustainable local finances, especially in poorer areas. Local authorities need to be thinking now about how development, especially business development, will determine their revenues for decades to come.

For our part, the RTPI will be supporting planners to measure the economic impact of what they do locally, and providing practical support through our Better Planning programme. But council leaders and elected members also need to recognise planning as a core local government business that also benefits communities – and invest in it accordingly.

Further Information: 

rtpi.org.uk

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