As part of the RTPI’s Chief Planners of Tomorrow Initiative, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jane Custance, Director of Planning & Development at the London Borough of Newham to explore some of the current challenges and opportunities faced by local planning authorities in London.
In this post, I share a snapshot of some of the key points from our discussion.
Community engagement and the next generation
Newham is the most diverse Borough in London. Despite being home to approximately 350,000 people, engagement in the planning process has historically been very low. Jane noted that for many in the Newham community, the first time they engage in the planning process is when they are supporting or opposing a planning application. This doesn’t show planning in the best light nor demonstrate the breadth of benefits that planning can achieve.
If we want to ensure communities have a greater say in the planning process and in how their local area is shaped, then increasing engagement and awareness is essential. Starting consultation earlier, during the initial pre-application stages of a project should be the norm and earlier engagement should, in theory, lead to better planning outcomes later down the line.
Resourcing and technical knowledge
Councils have long suffered from a lack of financial resources to properly invest in their planning departments. Recent RTPI research found that investment by local authorities in planning departments reduced by 43% between 2009-10 and 2020-21 in real terms, a trend which is stifling the system.
Despite this, Jane noted that there is growing pressure on Newham’s planning officers to have increased levels of technical expertise in more and more areas of the planning system such as urban greening credentials and circular economy statements. She made clear, however, that without adequate funding and specialist resourcing, it is very difficult, for Newham and other London local authorities to make informed judgements on such issues without GLA input.
The recently published Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill seeks to tackle the shortfall in funding through increasing planning application fees for major and minor planning applications by 35% and 25% respectively. Whether these extra funds will lead to wholescale improvements in resourcing or merely partially plug an existing funding gap is yet to be seen.
Government targets vs ‘on the ground’ reality
The 2022 local elections have put into sharp focus the impact of politics on the planning system, particularly the change to Labour of two flagship Conservative boroughs – Westminster and Wandsworth.
Jane outlined the wider disconnect between central and local government when it comes to policy directives, such as housing delivery, and, central government’s brushstroke approach to housing delivery targets doesn’t necessarily reflect what can be delivered on the ground.
In Newham for example, the south of the Borough is largely located within flood zone 3, causing significant pressure on the amount of developable land for housing. Reconciling the physical constraints of each local authority with government-imposed targets can therefore be challenging.
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