The intended aim of the White Paper is to bring in "radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War". These reforms, it is claimed, will create a planning system with greater public and community engagement and one with far more democratic accountability. And yet, is it also proposed to "streamline the opportunity for consultation at the planning application stage". So, are the proposals likely to achieve a more democratic system?
Pillar One of the White Paper, Planning for Development, proposes to streamline the development management process and grant automatic planning permission for sites categorised as “Growth Areas” and some “Renewal Areas” which comply with the local plan. The outline permission will be confirmed in the local plan with little opportunity to influence decisions at a later stage. The current application process enables members of the public to submit consultation responses during the planning application stage and make representations at planning committee, with the final decision to grant or refuse applications taken by elected councillors. This is the stage at which the public most actively engages with the system in our experience, with very few engaging with the local plan process, when it is less immediately obvious that it will affect them personally. The proposals in the White Paper effectively bring an end to consultation on planning applications in respect of Growth Areas and Renewal Areas, with automatic planning permission for schemes which comply with the local plan confirmed in the local plan itself, rather than determined through an application process. In order for the public to participate, they will need to engage in the plan making process and, given the complexities of drawing up local plans which will now include development ‘rules’ and not policies, this is likely to pose real challenges to the extent to which the public can effectively engage in the system.
Reforms to the local plan examination also suggest that public engagement may in fact be reduced with the 'automatic right to be heard' removed so that participants are invited to appear at hearings at the discretion of the Inspector. It suggests that certain local plans could also be examined through written representations only and without the right for individuals to be heard in person. Some view these changes to the local plan as a significant move away from public engagement in the planning process.
The Government’s aim to broaden Permitted Development rights also raises concerns about democratic accountability. PD rights have been significantly extended recently and it is very likely that the public will be disappointed, even outraged to find what can lawfully be done in their neighbourhood without any consultation. Some also say that the proposed "fast track for delivery" may bypass democratic scrutiny.
The drive towards digitisation with the move away from "notices on lampposts" to an interactive and accessible map-based online system which will "bring the planning process into the 21st century" may, if achieved, help create a more open and accessible system. Huge nationwide investment in technology resources will, however, be needed if these proposals are going to be successful and some are concerned that this would adversely impact those with poor or limited internet access, or those who are less technologically able and who continue to rely on notices being available in print. It is clear that this push for digitisation will not, in itself, result in an increase in public engagement with the planning process. It is not clear to us how digital publicity can be effectively sent to the people most affected. Postal addresses can easily be established, but not email addresses – assuming everyone has one.
Overall therefore, commentators are of the view that the White Paper reforms will not "democratise planning" but may actually have the opposite effect. We are inclined to think that whilst the intention to improve public engagement may be genuine the reforms, if they go ahead, are likely to leave the public feeling remote from decision making and that decisions are imposed on them without consultation. We look forward to considering the consultation responses on these very key issues and principles of the planning system.