Will planning reform deliver local growth and empower communities?

The article was originally published for The Guardian’s Local Government Network

Last month’s National Planning Policy Framework was trailed by the government as “unapologetically pro-growth” and a key part of the government’s economic recovery strategy. The question Future of London sought to uncover in its report, Localism in London, was whether a localist approach to planning would help or hinder economic recovery.

In other words, will the first of planning minister Greg Clark’s three key objectives for the NPPF – putting power in hands of community – actually contribute to his other two objectives: a better chance for growth, and creating places we cherish.

The planning professionals in London that we interviewed for our research were sceptical. Fewer than 10% felt that the localism agenda provided them with the tools they needed to raise standards in planning, and 75% did not feel the government had a consistent approach to localism.

Practitioners were clear that the biggest barriers they faced were a result of the broader economic climate. Issues such as low investor confidence, a lack of public funding for new infrastructure, scarce land at high value, and a lack of finance were highlighted as the biggest blocks to local economic growth and development.

Once you scratched below the surface, however, they were more positive about some of the government’s specific localist powers. In particular, they welcomed reform of the housing revenue account which would allow them to better predict income and borrow against future returns.

In addition, 94% said the community infrastructure levy would be useful or extremely useful in regenerating their local areas. More than half were planning to engage in innovative activity to raise funds to deliver infrastructure and about 80% thought the general power of competence may be useful, although there was less certainty here, reflecting its permissive nature.

The staff we interviewed were less positive about the community empowerment measures contained in the Localism Act. Fewer than 10% believed that neighbourhood planning, the community right to build and assets of community value would help create better places.

Alongside the broader economic climate, practitioners were concerned that challenges of engaging the community, a lack of capacity within those communities and different demands (particularly in a global city such as London) would leave little appetite for involvement. Set against a backdrop of severe cuts to local government, which was hitting planning teams hard, there also remained a high degree of risk aversion in local government, which was seen as a barrier.

The interviewees felt boroughs could not simply get out of the way for localism to flourish. They explained that they would have a significant role to play in supporting the development of neighbourhood plans, building local capacity for participation and encouraging a positive approach to development.

So the message came through very strongly in this research was innovative and ambitious boroughs that seized these new tools, joined revenue, powers and local assets across borough boundaries and engaged proactively with their communities could make this a success.

In the current funding and economic context, if planning is to help us build places we cherish, it is vital that those opportunities are taken.

Anna Turley