• Development Intelligence

Planning White Paper – The massive Tory U-turn on planning

Image taken from Planning White Paper

At one minute past midnight on 6 August, you could have heard the screeching of ‘rubber on road’ in Whitehall from the Moon. The tyre marks outside Parliament could probably have been seen from Mars. For the Tories had just carried out an absolutely massive and very public U-turn.

Cast your minds back to 23 February 2010 and the Tories, then in Opposition, launched their new Planning Green Paper called Open Source Planning, their blueprint for how they were going to reorganise planning if they won power. When they did indeed win the General Election in May 2010 a lot of that document morphed into the Localism Act 2011 and the NPPF 2012. In the reforms the Tories enacted, Eric Pickles, at the time the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities, Local Government and Planning, boasted:

“Communities will no longer have to endure the previous government’s failed Soviet tractor style top-down planning targets - they were a terrible, expensive, time-consuming way to impose house building and worst of all threatened the destruction of the green belt…They were a national disaster that robbed local people of their democratic voice, alienating them and entrenching opposition against new development.”

One of the main thrusts of this planning reform effort was to stop regional government imposing housing targets on local government. Instead, like magic, local councils were going to work out the numbers for themselves and would apparently be literally falling over themselves to grant planning consents for lots of new homes.

That went well then.

Fast forward to 6 August 2020. After 10 years with – who’d have guessed it – councils not coming up with anywhere near the right numbers after all, and frustrating housing delivery all across the land, a new improved methodology has been announced in the latest and fresh off the printer Planning White Paper, snappily named Planning for the Future. And what fun is inside:

“A new nationally-determined, binding housing requirement that local planning authorities would have to deliver through their Local Plans…”


“The Community Infrastructure Levy and the current planning obligations will be reformed as a nationally-set value-based rate charge (‘the Infrastructure Levy’).”

Turns out central Government’s “Soviet tractor style top-down planning targets” are in fact the best solution after all. Who knew?

And truthfully this is the journey of all governments of any colour. The fundamental conundrum of the planning system is this: how can pro-development, YIMBY central Government force anti-development, NIMBY local government to deliver what it wants and the economy and housing needs? Every government comes into office on a ‘changey, reformy’ ticket but gets frustrated with the sloth, bureaucracy – and yes – belligerence of local government’s lack of implementation. It doesn’t matter what the rules are, which political party is in charge, who the minister is, what decade it’s in, it’s always the same. Plus ça change.

Our chairman is old enough to have written an article for an august weekly property magazine at the time of New Labour’s attempt at planning reform (the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004), in which he wearily said:

1. Don’t waste any more time or taxpayers’ money on planning reform, as it never delivers.

2. Double the number of council planning officers.

3. Force all council planning committee members to complete RPTI training in the existing planning system and their own local plan.

4. Tax planning less – s106, s278 (and now CIL), affordable housing etc – as if you want more of something, the more you tax it, the less you always get. Duh!

5. Fund the public sector to actually build affordable housing and ramp up those numbers to 1950- 70s levels, as the private sector will never be able to achieve anything close to that.

On the evidence of this latest Planning White Paper, his view hasn’t changed very much.