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How planning works: Planning in England explained

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Town planning, sometimes called urban planning or spatial planning, is the process of managing the development of land and buildings. It shapes the way villages, towns and cities are designed, used and the way we experience these places. This article provides an overview of how planning works in England and a flavour of some current debates.

The image shows a series of images associated with planning applications for development, including a policy map, site and block plan, masterplan, construction and a residential development
The image shows a series of images associated with planning applications for development, including a policy map, site and block plan, masterplan, construction and a residential development

Sustainable Development and Planning System

The UK Government has produced a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England. It describes the purpose of the planning system as contributing to sustainable development. It explains that sustainable development can be defined as “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The National Planning Policy Framework goes on to say:

Achieving sustainable development means that the planning system has three overarching objectives, which are interdependent and need to be pursued in mutually supportive ways (so that opportunities can be taken to secure net gains across each of the different objectives):

a) an economic objective – to help build a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right types is available in the right places and at the right time to support growth, innovation and improved productivity; and by identifying and coordinating the provision of infrastructure;

b) a social objective – to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by ensuring that a sufficient number and range of homes can be provided to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by fostering well-designed, beautiful and safe places, with accessible services and open spaces that reflect current and future needs and support communities’ health, social and cultural well-being; and

c) an environmental objective – to protect and enhance our natural, built and historic environment; including making effective use of land, improving biodiversity, using natural resources prudently, minimising waste and pollution, and mitigating and adapting to climate change, including moving to a low carbon economy.

This fact sheet created by Home England explains some ways that development, in this case housing, can have positive economic, social, environmental effects.

How planning works

A developer, whether seeking to build a big extension to a single house or extension to a town, has to apply for planning permission to the local planning authority. The local planning authority is normally the district or unitary council that collects council tax.

The National Planning Policy Framework provides the overall framework for the decision making on planning applications and plan making (preparing development plans) . It sets out high level policies on housing, transport and other matters for England which are expected to be reflected in the local policies in Local Plans and in decisions on individual planning applications. What the National Planning Policy Framework does not do is say what types or amount of development should go where in the country. This gives rise to often highly politicised debates that are played out at the local level. Planning processes are defined nationally, but largely applied locally by councils.

Councils are led by locally elected politicians (councillors). Their decisions are implemented by permanent staff - council officers - who advise them on technical matters to support their decision making. Understanding how local government works and makes decisions is an important part of understanding the planning process. Councils publish constitutions explaining their rules and procedures for making decisions.

This process of determining applications for planning permission by a council is known as development management. You can find out more about this system of development management in: planning applications explained.

Planning law requires that decisions on planning applications “must be made in accordance with the development plan and any national development management policies, unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise” (Section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004). This is why England is described as having a ‘plan-led’ system. You can find out more about the development plans like local plans in: local plans explained.

Our Planning in 60 Minutes: A simple guide to town planning (England) explains more about how planning works in England. It covers planning applications, local plans, developer contributions (Section 106 and CIL) and more.

Current planning debates

Planning is challenging! Its purpose is to enable development to happen but in a way that meets the needs of communities now and 15, even 30 years in the future - and in a way that improves the natural environment. Getting the balance right between environmental, economic and social objectives can be technically complex. It can also be contentious. Finding consensus can be difficult if not impossible because people’s lives are impacted by planning - whether it is not having a home they can afford or whether they are concerned about 50 homes being built in a field near them and the impacts on infrastructure.

Housing and affordability

Tackling the under-supply of housing in England and tensions between managing the benefit of lots of new housing and its impacts, has become a hot button issue.

A lack of housing and affordable housing is acute in some parts of the UK. Centre for Cities housing research found:

“Cities with the biggest housing shortages are primarily concentrated in the Greater South East of England such as London and Brighton. But some places elsewhere like Edinburgh, Bristol, and York are also affected.

Many expensive cities, such as Oxford and Brighton, often build far less housing than cities with cheaper housing and lower demand, such as Wakefield and Telford. This is because the supply of houses has little connection to prices and therefore the cities with the most unaffordable housing”

The future of the Green Belt

There are also debates on the type of land development should or should not take place on. This fact sheet created by Homes England explains different types of land including brownfield (previously developed land), greenfield land and the Green Belt.

The role and future role of Green Belt has been the subject of fierce debate in the context of pressing housing needs. The aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The National Planning Policy Framework says:

The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

Green Belt serves five purposes: a) to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; b) to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; c) to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; d) to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and e) to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

There are compelling and passionate arguments for preserving the Green Belt. CPRE's Alice Roberts takes the view that building on Green Belt is not the only way and does not stand up to scrutiny, see: Why building on the green belt can’t solve the housing crisis and the short video produced by CPRE below.

Others have highlighted that not all Green Belt is actually that green, or environmentally sensitive, and are making a nuanced case for building on some Green Belt, including Quod's Barney Stringer in the video below.

The tensions and conflicts in the Green Belt policy are longstanding. Philip Barnes in his blog Green Belt, Grey Belt, Yes Belt, No Belt highlights what seems to be an emerging divide between the main political parties on the future of the Green Belt.

It is important that as planners we use our skills to bring the right perspective to addressing the nation’s housing crisis. The solution will be complex, long-term and across a myriad of fronts. It is inevitable that the question of whether there is a need to review GBs will be part of this. In making that decision it is important to consider the GB properly and to cut through the passion that often surrounds it.

The 15 Minute City

Another planning issue that has become the focus of debate centres on the “15-minute city” concept. This is the idea that within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their front door people should be able to access work opportunities, food, health, education, culture and leisure options. Cool right? Not everyone thinks so: 15 minute cities: How they got caught in conspiracy theories. How cars should be planned for (or planned out) has become a contentious subject. The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) were less than impressed by the government's Plan for Drivers, asking in their response Where’s the plan for transport? As Iceni point out :

Developments continue to be designed with road space, allowing access for all types of vehicles and where appropriate, parking spaces continue to be provided. This, however, seems to be lost in the balance of the argument and it is being seen as a war on the motorist, when really it is meant to enable a better range of greener, healthier and in some cases, cheaper options to travel, particularly when LTN’s help to reduce rat running and 15-minute cities help provide amenities on people’s doorsteps.

Planning in the headlines

These planning debates are likely to continue and intensify, particularly as we get closer to a general election in England. These oversimplified and highly polarised positions that too often characterise political discourse can be unhelpful. Judith Saloman in her article: Not all heroes wear capes…* addresses this issue, debunking a clunky black and white presentation of issues, explaining that there is a need for more considered debate and discussion.

Working in Planning involves understanding the national policy context defined by ministers and the vision that locally elected politicians have for the development of the area. It involves having (sometimes difficult) conversations with people living and working in the area to better understand their needs and concerns. These conversations need to be approached with humility and an open mind - but without losing sight of delivery realities. Because planning also means being realistic about build and development costs and also the need for development; people need homes, workspaces and the infrastructure that support these.

Developers are not universally evil, far from it, and NIMBYs are not always wrong

Working in planning also requires an honest and rigorous assessment of tensions between evidence on environmental and economic pressures. It demands creativity and intellect to find solutions that address and where possible reconcile competing objectives. It requires good judgement based on evidence to strike an appropriate balance between a whole range of needs and aspirations at the the level of an individual development and a city.

To work in planning is to work on this vast range of issues and challenges and to do so in a context of complexity and uncertainty (aka messiness). You will play a role in addressing the biggest challenges we face such as climate change, affordability of homes and the biodiversity crisis.

Learn More

If you are just starting out in a planning role or on a planning project, you can sign up for the course Planning in 60 Minutes: A simple guide to town planning (England). The course covers planning applications, local plans, developer contributions (section 106 and CIL) and more.

Ready to work in planning?

Find your first role or your next one, on the Work In Planning Jobs Board.

* Judith Saloman is right about a lot of things. Her insights on the planning system and how to improve it deserve more attention. And, as she posits in Not all heroes wear capes… , Arsenal really should have beat Chelsea.


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