We’re looking beyond our shores this week as we think about planning in an international context. We were thrilled to see Brisbane’s Chief Planner Dy Currie join Auckland Council’s Tom Maunsell last week, as part of the launch of a new book written and produced by the Commonwealth Association of Planners. We’ve also heard news from our UK Branch, who are a collection of NZ planners based in the UK. 

As we lead into the development of our first National Planning Framework we took the opportunity to speak to Michael Chang, a London based planner with kiwi origins, about working within the UK system and about what planning reform has meant for planners in England.

Q: What does the UK planning system look like?

The UK planning system can be described as a discretionary system. It is based on planners working to find a balance between national and local planning policy requirements and any other material planning considerations when making decisions on whether to grant or refuse consent. Some examples of the current national priorities for planning include:

  • housing delivery and affordability,
  • post-COVID levelling up housing and economic growth across the country,
  • housing design quality, biodiversity net gain and climate change, and
  • sustainable transport and active travel.

While we usually refer to the UK as one entity, each of the four UK nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) have their own planning systems. These systems have devolved policy but they broadly operate with similar principles and legislative frameworks.

Planning in England is guided by a National Planning Framework and a separate policy framework that relates to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. The UK system removed regionally developed strategic plans in 2011 through new legislation. Planners must therefore take into account local plans (representing local needs and aspirations) and national policy. This can be a challenge when dealing with cross boundary issues such as where to plan housing for a growing and ageing population.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) represents planners from across the UK and has an active presence in each of the four nations. Membership can only be attained for planners with an RTPI accredited degree. Many NZPI members retain their membership while living and working in the UK.

Planners who originate from Aotearoa can find themselves working in different roles in local government either in creating policies in local plans or making planning decisions on individual planning applications. The UK is currently experiencing a shortfall in public sector planners across the planning system from policy to enforcement.

Q. What is happening with UK Planning Reform?

The reform of the planning system in England is underway. Proposals were first set out in a 2020 Planning White Paper and are being implemented through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. Widespread consultation on this Bill is underway. The reforms do not include a complete consolidation of the increasingly complex planning legislation framework. The Planning White Paper recognised good planning is happening but that excellence in planning is the exception rather than the rule. The Paper highlighted reasons why there is a need for reforming the planning system citing the planning system is too complex, discretionary system increases planning risk such as around housing delivery, loss of public trust and local plans take too long to be developed. Sound familiar?

Notable proposals in the UK reform include reframing the scope and purpose of national planning policy, reform to the local plan-making system to make it simpler and more efficient, replacement system of developer contributions, and replacement system of environmental assessment. Stakeholders’ reactions to planning reform have been varied. While there is recognition that the planning system needs to be reformed, there is ongoing debate about balancing needs to simplify the system, local government resourcing constraints and tackling the big challenges such as housing and the environment.

Planning reform in England will have cross boundary implications in the other UK nations. For now Scotland is at an advanced stage of its planning reform and has consulted on changes to its national policy, and recently consulting on planning guidance for its 20-minute neighbourhood policy. Wales is making progress after publishing its statutory national development framework in 2021. Northern Ireland is continuing its journey in transitioning to a local plan-led system.

When compared to RMA reform, the reform to the planning system in England is taking its time, mainly due to a combination of major policy U-turns, political landscape changes and significant professional feedback. The UK Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent in late 2023 with further secondary legislation and policy documents to follow. Michael says, “We expected the process to be a marathon rather than a sprint, and many uncertainties remain which are having an operational impact on local policy development and decision-making activities”.

Aotearoa planners planning to work in the UK will find themselves working in a fast-pace, complex but uncertainty landscape. But there is plenty of professional support, forums and CPD opportunities to make the most of your time and contribution to UK planning. There is no shortage of appetite for big refreshing ideas that can help unlock the potential of planning for society, economy and the environment.

Join the NZPI UK Branch group on Facebook and keep up to date with their activities ...

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NZPI has a number of membership categories that could suit planners who work outside of New Zealand and wish to enjoy the opportunities that NZPI membership brings. Consider the benefits of membership now and reconnect with Aotearoa today. Contact our membership team at membership@planning.org.nz to discuss your options.