Progressive planning frontiers

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

The origins of the English planning system can be traced to an increased awareness of the role of the built environment in public health outcomes which came to the fore in the 1870s, following decades of cholera epidemics in cities and London’s Great Stink. The goal of formal planning rules, as they emerged in 1909 – to improve the basic living standards of the most vulnerable – evolved over subsequent decades to become an ambitious system of state-led powers for local authority control over development. Today, however, many of those early principles have been lost.

Local development and regeneration activity is now predominantly delivered by the private sector, and concerns are often raised that objectives to support good, healthy lives for local communities have taken a backseat to the need to capture value through rents and tax income.

“councils are understandably wary”

While most councils are still able to exercise control over local development, through responding to applications for planning consent, the scope for refusing them has narrowed. The Town and Country Planning Act enables a local authority to impose “such conditions as they think fit” on applications, which could be a lever to place obligations on developers to contribute to progressive local outcomes, councils are often wary of pushing developers too far. Many local authorities rely on the private sector, not only to create development in their places, but also to bolster much needed council tax and business rate revenue – placing extra conditions raises the risk that those private developers will choose another place to do business. Outright refusal is similarly fraught with danger, and councils are understandably wary of costly High Court appeals by disappointed applicants.

Despite these constraints, some councils are exploring avenues to use the planning system to facilitate outcomes closer to its original social goals: pushing private developers to contribute to their local agenda for people, place and planet. CLES has explored this activity in detail through our facilitated community of practice, speaking to – amongst others – practitioners from Salford and Preston City Councils.

An interventionist approach

The development of a local plan (which in England, sets out an area’s long term economic and spatial vision) every five years provides grounds on which local authorities can target the developments that best fit their vision for their place. A local authority’s ability to extract community benefits will depend greatly on their local plan. However, some research suggests that only 42% of local authority areas have an up to date plan.

Salford City Council is one of those areas, with a plan that states that “those wanting to invest in Salford will be welcomed, on the basis that they will do their best to improve the lives of all residents in the city. This will involve helping to address inequalities, both within Salford and with other parts of the country, for example in terms of health, skills, incomes and opportunities”. The local plan has been invaluable in setting a new direction and new priorities for the city, placing tackling inequalities at its heart.

“developers submit a social value strategy at the planning application stage”

To deliver on this, Salford City Council have embarked on an interventionist approach to planning which requires that developers submit a social value strategy at the planning application stage. This strategy must include details of how the development will maximise its contribution to local progressive objectives, including reducing inequalities in Salford and their adverse impacts on residents, promoting on-site employment and training opportunities for Salford residents, utilising local supply chains and signing up to the City Mayor’s Employment Charter.

This approach represents a significant change in planning practice in Salford over the past 15 years and has seen the Council become more demanding in contractual agreements. Moreover, it shows the power of negotiation and good council-developer relations.

Building foundations

Enabled by a recent ruling by the Planning Inspectorate in neighbouring Chorley, Preston City Council requires that developments above a size threshold provide employment for the most deprived communities, create training and upskilling opportunities for local people and support local supply chains through procurement. This innovative approach, known as “Building Foundations”, is aligned with Preston’s community wealth building strategy and ambitions and guided by a local plan that places tackling health inequalities as a core strategic objective, ensuring that more wealth circulates among the local workforce and business base.

To monitor delivery, Preston employs a local social enterprise, whose services are paid for by the developer. This enables the City Council to ensure the agreements are delivered upon, without significantly affecting the resources of the authority.

Going further

Salford and Preston are pioneers in placing conditions on developers to support local progressive economic outcomes. While Salford City Council have focussed on delivering employment with good terms and conditions, these rest on voluntary agreements and the good relationships between the Council and developers that have been built over many years. Preston City Council have taken a different approach, showing where it may be possible for legally binding requirements to lock developers into contributions towards progressive local economic development. For both councils, there is an onus on monitoring the delivery of these commitments – Preston is showing how this can be done without committing ever more scarce resources.

“treat land and property […] as assets to deliver progressive local economic outcomes”

However, local authorities need the funding, powers and the resources to ensure that they can engage with this progressive practice confidently without the threat of legal challenges from disappointed developers. In the meantime, councils should lay the groundwork by developing local plans that treat land and property not merely as commodities, but as assets to deliver progressive local economic outcomes such as tackling inequalities of income and health, as well as supporting decarbonisation and providing support to local social enterprise. By late 2025, 78% of councils will have the chance to update their local plans – we call on them to seize the opportunity to set a new direction for how planning supports good lives for their communities.