Backlash over government’s overhaul of English planning system


The government is facing a backlash from local councillors – including more than 350 Conservatives –over its proposals to shake up the planning system.

More than 2,000 councillors from across England and campaigners have signed an open letter to the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, calling on him to rethink the plans.

Ministers want to overhaul the planning system, which they say is necessary to boost the building of high-quality, sustainable homes, by streamlining the process, cutting red tape and harnessing technology.

Proposals include speeding up the creation of local plans by communities and creating zones for growth, renewal or protection, with development in growth areas pre-approved as long as it meets local design standards.

The proposals are also aimed at much quicker development in renewal areas, replace the planning process with a clearer, rules-based system, and protect green spaces by allowing for more building on brownfield land.

But councillors have said the plans will undermine local democracy by removing the public’s right to be heard in person at local plan examinations and taking away development decisions from elected planning committees.

They said the zoning system could radically reduce protections for nature, local green spaces and fail to tackle the climate crisis, and put additional pressure on greenfield sites.

The proposals would also weaken provisions for affordable, sustainable, good-quality homes, the open letter warns.

The letter states: “The right development, in the right place has the potential to deliver social equity and sustainable economic growth, as well as meeting our environmental ambitions. The government’s proposals as they stand will not achieve these goals.”

Crispin Truman, the chief executive of the countryside charity CPRE, which has hosted the letter alongside Friends of the Earth, said it was not too late for the government to rethink its changes to the planning system.

“Planning done well can create the affordable and well-designed homes that communities are crying out for,” he said. “We can create low-carbon and nature-friendly homes, with an abundance of green space on their doorsteps, all connected by low-carbon public transport.

“Investing in a locally led democratic planning system, that empowers local councils to create these places, should be the government’s top priority.”

Naomi Luhde-Thompson, a senior planner at Friends of the Earth, added: “It’s clear to so many MPs, councillors and local communities that the prime minister’s vision for decision-making on development in England is not one that guarantees local control and centres local voices.”

She said the proposals would “drown out community voices, stifle local democratic responsibility, and weaken legal protections for the environment”.

James Jamieson, the chairman of the Local Government Association, said councils were committed to ensuring new homes were built and communities had quality places to live.

He said: “It is vital that these are delivered through a locally-led planning system which gives communities the power to ensure new developments are of a high standard, built in the right places, and include affordable homes.”

He said nine in 10 applications were approved by councils and that more than a million homes given planning permission over the last decade were yet to be built.

“Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern,” he warned. “It would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas.

“If we are to truly fix our chronic housing shortage, councils need the tools, powers and flexibilities to plan for and deliver the quality homes and places communities need.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the concerns were unfounded and “demonstrate a misunderstanding of our proposals”.

They added: “Our reforms to the planning system will protect our cherished countryside and green spaces for generations to come. The proposals will put local democracy at the heart of the planning process, enabling green belt decisions to remain with councils and giving communities real influence over development location and design.”