Demos Daily: People Powered Planning

Allegations of a Cabinet minister’s intervention in the planning process has been causing waves throughout Westminster this week. While details of the particular case are still emerging, it begs a wider question: how common is it that planning decisions like these are subject to such high level interference? It is already the case that the general public don’t feel involved with most planning or housing decisions which then go on to affect them, and it’s causing a crisis of trust in the system. Last year, our report People Powered Planning outlined the case for putting these decisions in the hands of a broad range of people in the local area. We found that better involving people in the planning system can get more homes built, and help overcome the lack of trust in the planning and housebuilding system.

Read the executive summary below, or the full report here.

Executive Summary

Britain faces its most severe housing crisis for decades. This report considers one potential solution: better involving people in the planning system to get more homes built.

We find engagement in the planning system is low and that people often feel shut out from decisions about housebuilding in their local area. This means housing developments too often fail to match the needs and desires of local residents, leading to opposition and conflict in the planning system. Furthermore, those that are engaged – retired homeowners, for example – are often the least likely to support new housebuilding in their local area.

This suggests that opposition to new homes could be reduced by housing developments better reflecting the wishes of local people. It also suggests that involving a broader range of people in the planning process could lead to pro-development voices being better heard. This report outlines a number of potential changes to the current planning system to achieve this.

It also seeks to overturn the view that people are intrinsically a barrier to getting more homes built. We find that local residents often support new homes in their local area, but that the planning system too often shuts them out of housebuilding decisions, leading to developments they are unlikely to support. Properly harnessed, people power can get more homes built and tackle our housing crisis. Achieving this may require new forms of decision-making – such as citizens’ assemblies – which build consensus and can help overturn the oppositional nature of the planning system.

Key findings:

  • Engagement in the planning system is generally low – more than half of the public have never engaged with the planning system (56%).
  • Generally people do not feel involved in decisions about housebuilding in their local area – a majority of people (54%) do not feel at all involved in planning and housing decisions in their local area and just 10% feel very well involved.
  • People generally support new homes being built in their local area: almost half of the public (47%) support new homes being built in their local area with only around a quarter (27%) opposing such developments.
  • However, engagement in the planning system is often dominated by those that are less supportive of new homes in their local area. Involving a broader range of people in decisions about housebuilding could therefore increase support for new homes.
  • Consulting residents about a particular housing development could increase support for that development by roughly 10%.
  • Too often objecting to a planning application is seen as the only means of influencing the housebuilding process, creating a culture of conflict in the planning system. New forms of decision making should be introduced to the planning system to encourage consensus not conflict, such as citizens’ assemblies.
  • Opposition to housing development is often driven by a wide range of concerns. These include: a failure to provide sufficient levels of affordable housing; a lack of provision for public services and infrastructure; a failure of the developer/council to properly engage local people; and poor design. This suggests that addressing these concerns could reduce local opposition to housebuilding.
  • The most important feature of new housing developments for the public is the type of housing (e.g. semi-detached or detached) that will be built. Whilst important, the size of the development is only the fourth most important feature, after type of homes, existing land use of development site and tenure of homes. This suggests that better reflecting what the public wants from housing development sites – with respect to the types of home built, existing land use and tenure of new homes – could reduce opposition to housing development.

Recommendations:

To ensure that consultation happens at the earliest possible stage, allowing residents to meaningfully shape a proposed development, we recommend that:

Recommendation 1: Pre-application consultation should be mandatory for major housing developments in England.

To make it easier to engage in housebuilding decisions and to supplement offline engagement, we recommend that:

Recommendation 2: Central government should launch a digital planning innovation fund, enabling local planning authorities to develop innovative online consultation and engagement tools for planning.

To ensure that a wider range of voices are heard in the planning system and to allow for a more careful, considered debate about housebuilding decisions, we recommend that:

Recommendation 3: Local planning authorities should trial the use of deliberative decision-making methods – such as citizens’ assemblies – as part of the local plan making process.

Recommendation 4: Research organisations, local planning authorities and wider civil society should collaborate to develop tools for online deliberation to support the local plan making process.

To encourage new models of housing development that can deliver new homes at scale whilst better involving local people, we recommend that:

Recommendation 5: Developers, civil society and researchers should work to further develop the concept of ‘community-developer partnerships’.

To address the underfunding of planning departments, which affects housing supply and local authorities’ ability to involve people in planning decisions, we recommend that:

Recommendation 6: Central government should provide ring-fenced emergency grant funding to local planning authorities.