From Land-Use to 'Spatial Planning': Reflections on the Reform of the English Planning System

Article excerpt

The reform of the English planning system effected by the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act sought to re-brand planning as a positive instrument designed to help maintain, create and/or recreate sustainable communities. The terminology through which this purported transition from a system which was perceived to be regulatory and bureaucratic in character to one in which practising planners coordinate, orchestrate and manage the changing nature of communities is very much redolent of the vocabulary by which the political philosophy of the Third Way has been communicated. In this article, we explore the origins of the new system in these political ideals and the extent to which English planners are, in accord with the intentions of the new system, reaching beyond narrow land-use regulation to develop a more coordinated and consensus-based approach to planning practice. The article draws upon the results of a major three-year research project Spatial Plans in Practice, funded by the UK government, to provide an empirical reflection on the experiences of planning professionals over the first three years of the new system's operation.

In 2004, following a fundamental review of the previous system, a new system of spatial planning for England was introduced by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. The intention of the legislation was to broaden the scope of planning practice and revise the widely held perception that planning and planners had become peripheral in many local authorities due to a preoccupation with procedural, bureaucratic issues. By contrast, the 2004 reforms anticipated a planning profession at the core of the place-making agenda and a plan-making process more clearly rooted in evidence with a greater degree of stakeholder involvement. Given the potential contrast between this vision of twenty-first century planning and the more overtly regulatory nature of the pre-2004 system(s) it has been noted that, for these ambitious reforms to be realised, a significant culture change would be required in the way that all stakeholders engage with the planning process (Shaw and Lord, 2007). In this article we investigate the conceptual and theoretical origins of the 2004 reforms before assessing the extent to which they have been implemented.

Research with which the authors have been involved for the last three years, the Spatial Plans in Practice Project (SPiP), is drawn upon to fulfil this empirical component of the paper. This study, commissioned by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, now the Communities and Local Government department, was designed to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the reformed system in England across 25 strategically selected case studies (see Table 1). These case studies were selected in 2004 to represent the variety of planning contexts (e.g. urban, rural, urban fringe, growth area, area of regeneration, etc.) found across England, and those local planning authorities which were most engaged in developing the new local development frameworks. The case studies were not intended to be exemplars of best practice.

Reflecting on the experiences of these 25 local planning authorities potentially provides an insight into the degree to which planning practice has responded to the intentions of the new system. However, to grasp the character of the reforms introduced by the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act fully, it is first necessary to briefly consider their origins in the pre-2004 system(s).

What's new about the 'new' planning system?

Emerging in a period characterised by a popular consensus regarding the importance of state intervention to manage and plan post-war reconstruction (Ward, 2004) and premised on the nationalisation of land development rights, for Davies (1998, 136) there were five basic principles of the English planning system in its original form which have endured and distinguish it from the more commonly adopted process of regulatory zoning regimes elsewhere:

1. …