Few would disagree with the need to simplify a planning system widely seen as expensive and unwieldy by both applicants and planning authorities, and this is why the Government is reforming planning through the Localism Bill and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). However, while the need for reform is clear, the lack of reliable and timely data about the impact of planning makes it very difficult for reform to be evidence-based.
Centre for Cities has investigated the data available for commercial development. We have been forced to conclude that it is neither reliable nor extensive enough to allow us to draw conclusions. Unpicking if and how national planning policy has influenced demand for commercial development, for example, is tricky. We know how many planning applications are submitted; how quickly decisions are made; and what proportion of applications are approved. But data on application types, the land they cover, or whether they have been acted upon are all very limited.
Data on the future land uses allocated in plans is only available for brownfield land. This is of very limited use is understanding whether, when a city allocates land for commercial development, its intentions are fulfilled. This would help us to understand whether the plan-making system succeeds when it aims to enable business growth.
In a recent blog post reporting from a LSE-hosted planning policy roundtable, Henry Overman suggests the consequences of a lack of data about the planning system include exaggerated estimates of the amount land likely to be affected by development and of the relative costs of developing brownfield and greenfield land. His call for evidence gathering on the impact of new Government incentives for local authorities is very welcome.
Unfortunately, despite the Government’s transparency agenda and creation of data.gov.uk, the planning data situation seems unlikely to improve. The Government has promised not to increase the burden on local authorities to provide additional data in the absence of extra funding, and there is no sign that this gap will be filled centrally.
In a further attempt to fill the information gap, Centre for Cities has researched the progress made by city local authorities towards adopted Core Strategies. Sixty–two percent do not have a Core Strategy approved by Government, 8 years after the current system was introduced. Only three city local authorities have an adopted site allocation among their development plan documents.
These figures show that cities across the country have struggled to get to grips with national planning policy requirements. But, despite this lack of progress, there appears to be no correlation between economic performance and progress towards Core Strategy adoption. This suggests that the high-level requirements of the current system are not directly linked to a city’s wider prospects of success.
Changing a system requires a clear understanding of how it has worked in the past, and Government should take a fresh look at where it will find the data in 2015 to demonstrate what the new system has achieved.