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COST Action C11

Spatial Planning in England

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Spatial Planning England

Carolyn Harrison


The English Planning System

(note since devolution different planning regulations have developed in Scotland and Wales)

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Since devolution under the Labour Government separate systems now operate in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although the basic procedures are similar.

The current planning system

There are two elements to the planning system: plans and development control.


National tier: There is no National Plan although national legislation and Planning Policy Guidance notes issued by central government provide the national framework for other plans and planning procedures. There are 25 Parliamentary Planning Guidance Notes to assist local planning authorities in carrying out their planning duties including development control &emdash; these include advice on Green Belts (PPG2), Housing (PPG3), Nature Conservation (PPG 9) and Sport, Open Space and recreation (PPG 17) and etc.

Regional Planning: Central government also provides Regional Planning Guidance that is the context for planning over a 20 year period. Regional planning fell into disfavour during the Thatcher period of the late 1980s and 1990s. As part of its devolution agenda, the Labour government has set up eight Regional Development Agencies that are expected to provide a similar framework and based on a membership that is more representative of the region it serves..

County level: at the level of the English counties Strucutre Plans provide a planning framework for a 15 year horizon. Minerals and Waste Plan are mandatory at this tier.

Local authority level: District or Local Plans apply at the local authority level and cover a 10 year time horizon.

Unitary Development Plans (UDP) are equivalent to the Local and District plans for Metropolitan District Councils, the London Boroughs and the Isle of White . Part 1 of the UDP is a framework of general policies. Part 2 includes detailed policies and proposals to guide development control for a 10 year horizon or longer in the case of green belt. The Government Act for London 1999 re-established a single governing authority for the capital.

Commentary: In drawing international comparisons the UK is unusual in several respects.

  • The UK does not have a codified constitution that protects citizens' rights. In terms of planning this means that while in other European countries (Italy, The Netherlands and Spain), citizens have a constitutional right to a decent home, UK citizens do not. Likewise, in Finland and Portugal for example, landowners are granted the constitutional right to build on their land. These constitutional rights may affect policy priorities and provide legitimacy for intervention in the planning process. On the other hand operating a policy of urban restraint might prove more difficult. &emdash; the success of Green Belt policy in England may in part be dependent on the 'absence' of these kinds of rights.
  • Constitutions also often allocate powers to different tiers of government but in the UK there is no such constitutional safeguarding of the autonomy of different tiers of government. This allowed the Thatcher government to sweep away a whole layer of Metropolitan Local Government in the late 1980s.
  • In general, planning in the UK has not been concerned with social aspects of planning &emdash; though the rhetoric if not practices of planning for sustainable development has begun a shift in thinking (see below).
  • Unlike plans in many other countries, plans in the UK are not legal documents &emdash; they guide development but are not legally binding. This means that planning authorities at regional, county and local levels can exercise considerable discretion when reviewing development proposals.
  • The many-tiered approach to land-use planning is currently being reviewed by central government with proposals designed to reduce the number and complexity of plans and to streamline the protracted period required to produce them (see below)
  • Public participation in the planning process includes opportunities to comment on plans and development applications. The procedures are very formal, often limited to the end of the process rather than the start and are based on public meetings and written objections.

2. Development control is the process that determines the outcome of planning applications &emdash; including major infra-structure projects like airports and road schemes as well as applications by householders etc. Development control has been a responsibility of all Local Planning Authorities since 1947. National Park Authorities prepare National Park Plans and exercise development control over developments with the Park. Development control in Green Belts is exercised at the local level. Empirical studies show that where, as in London and the south-Eats development pressures are high, successive administrations have attempted to extend the area under green belt control even though effectiveness of development control at the local level varies from one authority to the next. Overall however Green belts are regarded as having been successful at containing urban growth but poor at promoting positive land uses.

Since 1991 development control activities have been plan led. &emdash; in most urban areas this means being guided by the Unitary Development Plan (UDP) or Local Plan. In London the Mayor prepares a Spatial Development Strategy &emdash; known as 'The London Plan' - with which the London boroughs UDPs will be expected to conform.

Commentary: A number of commentators have observed that during the 1980s and 1990s under the Thatcher government, central government policies favoured market-led development and local planning policies came to reflect these priorities. This marked a shift from earlier periods in which local planning authorities were expected to act 'in the public interest' in their efforts to protect local communities ' from the excesses of development' and to protect environmental quality. As noted above social goals have seldom been a strong feature of the UK planning system.

At the same time central government imposed financial cuts on local authorities so that partnership approaches to re-development were encouraged. In other words, development came to favour private property interests and the 'public interest' and 'public participation' &emdash; the other two foundational ideologies of the British Planning system were subordinated.

The return of a Labour Government to pwer in 1997 has not really changed things. However, at the time of writing (February 2002), the planning system as a whole is being reviewed and a consultation document Planning: delivering a fundamental change DTLR 2001 has been put out to public consultation.

Environmental planning

Nature conservation and landscape planning at the national scale.

The main difference as far as the environment is concerned is that in England, nature conservation and the protection of fine landscape are duties that reside in separate statutory agencies. These duties are the responsibility of single agencies in Scotland (Scottish Natural Heritage SNH) and in Wales (The Countryside Council for Wales CCW).

In England responsibility for nature conservation resides with English Nature (EN). English Nature designates, manages and sometimes owns some 200 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and also designates and monitors the condition of over 6000 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). EN also has powers to designate Local Nature reserves (LNRs) in association with land owners or other authorities with an interest in land ( Local Authorities). There are about 700 LNRs in the UK today, several of them in urban or adjacent to areas.

Nationally the responsibility for designating National Parks and other protected landscapes such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) resides with the Countryside Agency (CA).

Pollution control: The Environment Agency has statutory responsibility for integrated pollution control (air, water and land) throughout the UK and a duty to promote conservation.

Green belts Since 1995 Green Belt legislation designed to contain urban development around cities applies in England and Scotland. There is no formal green belt policy in Wales..

Government departments

In England the relevant government department for rural policies is now the Department of Rural Affairs (formerly DETR - The Department of Environment Transport and the Regions). Planning and urban issues are now the responsibility of the Department of Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) This change took place in 2001. Comprehensive policies for the rural and urban areas have been issued by central government as Rural and Urban White Papers respectively. Conservation and biodiversity concerns are addressed prominently in the Rural White Paper but are virtually absent from the Urban White Paper.


Green structure and greenspace planning at the local level including metropolitan areas

Local Plans have sections on the environment, the landscape, and nature conservation but the content and policies of each plan differ from one Local Planning Authority to the next.

Provision of public open space for recreation remains a separate function addressed in most local plans and is not necessarily related to nature conservation or landscape policies.

This high variability in policy and content partly stems for the nature of the advice offered through Planning Policy Guidance Notes (PPGs). These are strong on procedural advice &emdash; indicating the kind of things the LPAs should be doing - but offering little in the way of good practice advice about what can be done.

In terms of open-space provision for example, existing PPG suggests several approaches based on proportion of green space to built-area, or a specified number of acres of public open space per thousand population. Guidance notes guidelines on play-space provision offered by the National Playing Field Association (NFPA 1992) employ distance and time criteria. Distances of 100 metres, 400 metres and 1000 metres and their equivalent walking times (I minute; 5 and 15 minutes) are recommended for Local Areas for Play, Local Equipped Areas for Play, and Neighbourhood Equipped Areas of Play respectively.

The provision of public open space for recreation including formal parks, commons, areas of encapsulated countryside, squares and gardens, is largely based on the concept of a spatial hierarchy of sites that recommends provision of local, district and metropolitan parks based on size and increasing distance from the home. The precise pattern and standard of open space provision based on acres/head of population is highly variable.

Recent initiatives

Current criteria designed by central government to promote Best Value Indicators for urban green spaces among 'Beacon' or Lead Authorities, bring together criteria associated with a more ecological approach to planning, provision and management with a greater appreciation of user expectations and increased potential for community involvement. The criteria include:

  • Vision and strategy: including evidence of corporate appreciation of the benefits of greenspaces; a published strategy for greenspaces;
  • An active programme of public consultation;
  • Partnerships for involving local organisations the schemes to enhance green spaces;
  • Actions associated with a management and maintenance plan involving innovative design; improving accessibility; an investment strategy, clear standards of husbandry.

Viewed in terms of outcomes this approach would favour:

  • Networks of green spaces integrated with other landuses that enhance the primary landscape and ecological qualities of the area.
  • Welcoming greenspaces that people can use in safety
  • Spaces contributing to the regeneration of areas and improving the quality of people's lives
  • Positive public perception about local green spaces that would be monitored by user surveys.

Nature conservation and biodiversity planning

Site protection: In terms of putting in place nature conservation policies, the performance of metropolitan authorities in England is better than their rural district authorities. Most authorities have nature conservation policies designed to protect sites of nature conservation importance from development. International and Nationally important sites &emdash; Special protection Areas, National Nature Reserves and SSSIs are given the strongest protection through local policies.

Locally important sites or second tier sites (SINCs) are given lesser protection but are nevertheless identified in most local plans. Second tier sites are identified by the local authority and may be included in Supplementary Guidance prepared by the local authority and used as material considerations in the development control process.

The criteria used for identifying nationally important sites are primarily scientific criteria although many local authorities also use social criteria ( aesthetic appeal; access; area of wildlife deficiency) to reflect the urban context of second tier sites and Local Nature Reserves.

For example, the London site appraisal system (developed by the former London Ecology Unit now absorbed into the Greater London Authority ) identifies a spatial hierarchy of metropolitan, borough and local level sites of importance for nature conservation designed to ensure that every resident has access to a quality wildlife site within reasonable walking distance of the home (300-500 metres). Areas without easy access to a wildlife site are identified as 'areas deficient in wildspace'. Key targets for the Mayor's Biodiversity strategy are to lessen the extent of neighbourhoods 'deficient in wildspace' and to ensure that there is 'no net loss in quality wildlife sites'.

Green corridors: Many local plans include policies for Green Corridors based on their importance for shaping urban form, providing recreational opportunities and conduits for the movement of wildlife. Some of these will be based on natural features, such as existing waterways while others are abandoned railway lines, canals or greenways that are a historical legacy of former route ways. The London Plan identifies the Thames as 'Blue Corridor.'

UK national strategy for urban biodiversity.

Tree preservation Orders: on individual and blocks of trees can also be applied.

Biodiversity plans: national, regional and local biodiversity plans are being promoted by central government though the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The national government has a statutory duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity in the course of their functions but this duty does not extend to Local Planning Authorities.

Biodiversity Plans are taken forward by setting up a Biodiversity Partnership of local organisations to undertake habitat and species audits as a basis for habitat and species action plans. Most activity has focused on the biodiversity plans for the countryside.

Attention to urban areas depends on the level of activity and commitment already associated with nature conservation planning. Uniquely among metropolitan authorities London's Mayor has a statutory duty to prepare a Biodiversity Strategy, this is available in draft as 'Connecting with London's nature'. This strategy is supported by a separate Biodiversity Plan led by a local partnership that includes the Greater London Authority, other statutory agencies such as English Nature and the Environment Agency; private sector members such as Thames Water, The London Underground and voluntary sector partners such as the London Wildlife Trust, London Natural History Society and University College London. This cross-sector approach is regarded as an important means of ensuring that all sectors take their responsibility for protecting biodiversity seriously

However, ensuring that habitat and species action plans are implemented and biodiversity targets met will depend critically on the extent to which local plans and development control functions protect and promote them. At the moment local planning authorities will continue to exercise discretion..


The need for change:

At the time of writing (Feb 2002) central government is revising several Planning Policy Guidance Notes relevant to green structure and green space planning &emdash; PPG 17 Sports and Recreation; PPG 9 Nature Conservation and PPG 1 General Policy and Principles. This latter will be informed by responses to a consultation paper Planning: delivering a fundamental change issued at the end of 2001 .

What follows is a brief resume of the reasons for change and some of the government's main proposals.

Reasons for change

Complexity &emdash; the system is complex, remote, hard to understand and difficult to access:


  • too many plans ( 4 tiers in some areas)
  • national guidance is long, unfocused and mixes policies with good practice
  • planning rules are complex
  • the appeals procedure is obscure

Speed and complexity &emdash; rules prevent rather than encourage good development; and delays mean businesses suffer because:

  • speed of decision making is highly variable
  • lack of predictability
  • plans are expensive to update and often out of date
  • appeals are too slow

Community engagement: the system is 'consultative' but does not engage local communities because:

  • protracted procedures mean only the most committed and well funded groups participate
  • local authorities make decisions without giving applicants or objectors opportunity to present their case
  • procedures are legalistic and difficult to understand without prior training and knowledge

Customer focus and standards of service: the system is not 'in touch' with local peoples' concerns. As a result:

  • people can't find appropriate advice
  • information is not accessible
  • serious skills shortages in local authority planning departments

Enforcement: effective control is not always taken against those who wilfully avoid planning controls

Report of the UK Urban parks task force (May 2002)

UK backgrouns data -

The government's proposals

Aim to:

  • Introduce a new strategic focus by simplifying the number of plans with new Local Development Frameworks that will connect up with the local Community Strategy all local authorities now have to prepare &emdash; these latter are designed to provide the community's vision for the future.
  • The Frameworks will provide a clear set of criteria by which local authorities will be able to steer development &emdash; they will not include the hundreds of policy statements that contribute to the complexity and bulk of existing local plans.
  • Action Plans will be drawn up for town centres, neighbourhoods and villages. And Master Plans will be drawn up for major development sites. Business development areas will also be identified.

New efficiency targets will speed up the decision process

  • Consultation strategies will be a material consideration in making decisions about development applications. New requirements for openness and accountability within the planning process will improve legitimacy of the decision-making process.
  • The decision process on major infra-structure projects such as airports, nuclear power stations, roads will be made by parliament after local consultation.


Much of what is proposed will depend on the details of implementation and the extent to which Planning Policy Guidance includes good practice guidance. When added to policies for Best Value that now link government block grant to LAs with the need to demonstrate that local authorities are delivering services and functions that meet local peoples needs, the overall approach has merit.

But, there are inevitable tensions between achieving effective public engagement in the planning process &emdash; in the production of Local Development Frameworks and in the development control process - and the need to speed up these processes to assist businesses.

In terms of green structure and green space the criteria identified in Planning Policy Guidance for promoting policies and practices will be very important. Public consultation on PPG 17 Sport, Open Space and Recreation suggests that the revised PPG need to be more explicit about:


  • The significance given to informal recreation in urban spaces
  • Explicit references to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 200 and requirements of planning authorities to establish local access boards;
  • More emphasis on the multi-functional role of open spaces as transport conduits, wildlife havens, social gathering places and supporting the ecological functions of towns and cities ( run-off control, pollution scavenging etc)
  • Greater emphasis on the threats that open spaces will be exposed to through PPG 3 Housing that recommends new homes should be built on brownfield sites not green field sites. In London and the South East this means greater pressure on urban brownfield sites that often have considerable wildlife and recreational value.

Consultation on the revision of PPG 9 Nature Conservation has focussed on whether it is desirable to achieve greater conformity amongst the various local systems used to designate second tier wild life sites (SINCs). Proposals currently favour separating scientific criteria from social criteria. The philosophy and experience of urban wildlife conservation has always favoured an integrated approach that is sensitive to local context but with minimum standards of spatial provision and access. For example English nature favours a minimum standards approach in its guidance to local authorities: 2 ha wildspace within easy waking distance of the home; and 1ha of designated Local Nature Reserves per thousand population. Only two urban local authorities met this latter target in 1993 and only four exceeded the target in 19979Box and Barker Delivering Sustainability through Local Nature Reserves, Town and Country Planning 67 1998 360-363)

On a national level, there is likely to be considerable opposition to the proposal that parliament decides the outcomes of large infra-structure projects. Designed to speed up decisions, these proposals will be opposed by many activists who will not accept that parliament provides an arena in which the complexity of these projects can be effectively debated. Direct action &emdash; partly a function of the lack of constitutional rights - may well escalate.

Update Feb 2002

Report of the UK Urban parks task force (May 2002)- this is the report of the governmental investigation into the state of the parks and greenspaces in British towns. Sheffield University have been involved in this and their research paper will soon be online too.

UK national strategy for urban biodiversity.

Updated May 2002


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