Why good planning systems are essential for the countryside

Avatar for Philippa Oppenheimer
By Philippa Oppenheimer
6th August 2020

‘Ripping up the red tape’ of the planning system in the name of economic recovery is, disappointingly, the newest attack on the very system that can ensure the best outcomes for people and for our countryside, explains our land use officer Philippa Oppenheimer.

Of course, good planning systems (that is, the processes that guide what gets built and where) are important for all of us, everywhere. But as you’d expect from ‘the countryside charity’, we’re especially interested in the impact of planning on rural areas.

But if you’re new to CPRE, it might not be apparent why we care so much about planning.

Good land-use planning is the unsung hero of environmental protection. Planning can ensure that we use our land in the best way possible – such as encouraging urban generation rather than urban sprawl. This will enable the countryside to be enhanced and protected, allowing it to perform vital functions such as providing habitat for wildlife and mitigating climate breakdown.

'Good land-use planning is the unsung hero of environmental protection.'
Philippa Oppenheimer, CPRE land use officer

It’s crucial if we’re going to have the green recovery from coronavirus that so many of us want to see.

Here we are… again

Government calls for deregulation of the planning system are nothing new. The system has been blamed time and time again for restricting growth and housing delivery. But the truth is the opposite, I fear the only impact that planning deregulation will have is to harm the quality, location and sustainability of housing development: build rates will be unaffected. The Letwin review of 2018 that looked at ‘build-out’ rates found that this is due to a number of factors, including developers’ reluctance to release houses into the market for fear of affecting the local housing prices.

'I fear the only impact that planning deregulation will have is to harm the quality, location and sustainability of housing development.'
Philippa Oppenheimer

Unfortunately, it’s already all too easy for developers to build poor-quality housing. Our research with Place Alliance revealed that 75% of new housing development shouldn’t have gone ahead due to ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ design. A key factor here is that too often, residents of new housing estates have to rely on cars to get around. Opportunities to walk or use public transport are inadequate or non-existent.

We need to build new houses, so good design is vital for ensuring that new developments are acceptable to the local community, as well as helping us to move towards a zero-carbon economy.

Green is good

But the planning system has other objectives than house building, as Boris Johnson reminded us during his ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech by referring to the supposed delays caused by ‘newt-counting’. This was followed by the environment secretary making concerning references to ‘changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system’.

Even if environmental assessment processes were the reason that housing delivery is slow compared with our European neighbours (and they aren’t!), they still serve a vitally important and function within the planning system and are another of the reasons why the planning system is important to CPRE.

'Environmental protection is one of the core objectives of why the planning system exists.'
Philippa Oppenheimer

Environmental protection is one of the core objectives of why the planning system exists and contributes to its overall aim of sustainable development. Changing the way in which environmental assessments are undertaken could undermine this purpose of the planning system, resulting in negative consequences for nature and the environment.

Meeting local needs

Locally-led development offers the best outcomes for people and nature. It can ensure that the right development is in the right place, and creates places where people actually want to live. The recently announced reforms will only serve to undermine local voices, by preventing communities from managing their own towns and cities, for example, and as we’ve seen before, result in environments that don’t work for the people that live there.

'Although CPRE doesn’t believe that the planning system as it stands is perfect, any change needs to look forward, and create a planning system that’s fit for the future.'
Philippa Oppenheimer

Although CPRE doesn’t believe that the planning system as it stands is perfect, any change needs to look forward, and create a planning system that’s fit for the future. We’ve long campaigned for positive changes within the planning system:

  • Prioritising the development of brownfield land would regenerate our towns and cities and protect our precious green spaces and countryside
  • Restoring control over development back to communities through a truly plan-led system and public scrutiny processes
  • Providing more genuinely affordable homes in rural areas. In 2018/19, a little over 1,000 social homes were delivered across 91 rural local authorities in England. On current building rates, it will take 154 years to clear the backlog in social housing. We want local authorities to have more powers and resources to deliver the homes people in rural areas need
  • Empowering communities to decide on the design standards for new developments, creating places that people want to, and actually can, live. We need new homes to be zero carbon as soon as possible – and certainly shouldn’t have to wait until 2050 for this.

The planning system is one of the most powerful systems we have for environmental protection. In the face of climate, nature and health crises we must move forward, not backwards.

We’re working on this. Join us.

CPRE will continue to campaign against planning deregulation and for a planning system that benefits people and the countryside. Want to do your bit to help our campaigning for the best possible planning systems? Join us as a member to get involved in your local area or support our national lobbying to the government – or pop us a one-off gift to give us our activity a timely boost!

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