In this interview, we chat to Helen Morris MRTPI, who had worked in local government for 12 years prior to this year, when she became a Director at RCA Regeneration, a national planning consultancy, in their East of England office.
This has provided her with a unique perspective on the planning system in the UK from both sides of the fence. In this piece, she sits down with Aprao to discuss her views on the legacy of government planning processes, recent proposals and the future of the system under a new Housing Minister.
Local government and stretched capacity
According to Helen, the planning system is long overdue for reform. This is largely due to the stretched resources and minimal support, which local government teams have at their disposal.
“I can't see how any real change in terms of speeding up the planning process can happen until that lack of resources is overcome.” She says, “Lack of staff and the recruitment of motivated staff has long been a problem in local authorities.”
The recruitment process often goes unnoticed but has a large underlying impact on the planning process, as instead of dedicated candidates, “you get a lot of temporary contractors, especially during the recovery since COVID.
"On the whole, I think that is where local authorities really struggle. You get a high turnover of staff and that has an impact on the consistency of applications and the planning process as a result. For example, if the case officer on an application is changing regularly during the application process, it takes a while for that new appointee to get up to speed on the previous updates.
This all leads to an inability to get that good relationship and rapport with the developer or other agents.”
Do shelved planning changes mean reform is also on the shelf?
On 15th September, Michael Gove replaced Robert Jenrick in the latest cabinet reshuffle, leaving many wondering how this will affect the likelihood of meaningful reform. Proposed changes put forward earlier this year to how the planning system would be updated were passed over within 24 hours.
One of these discarded proposals included creating specific growth zones to prevent developments from being blocked, and to enable the government to meet the expansive shortfall on housing targets. However, criticism around this included the impact this would have on the local community’s voice in the planning process. Helen agrees with this objection.
“I think zoning almost seemed to be an ‘anything goes’ green light for development in growth areas. And then in other areas, you might only need permission in principle, and you just have to get approval for the details. My concern would be that this is taking power away from the local people in a growth area. Local people are going to be taken away from being able to have their input in the planning system that they currently have.”
Despite some local objectors being difficult to manage, Helen believes it’s vital that dialogue between communities and planning offices remains open: “at the end of the day, people need to be able to have input in the system, they need to be able to say when they've got concerns with an application, so they definitely should be part of that process.”
“Regarding the change in Housing Minister, I think everybody agrees, that whichever side of the fence you're on, that there needs to be reform. I really hope the new Housing Minister does bring meaningful reform into effect."
"As mentioned, I'm not convinced by the changes that were proposed earlier this year, so I'm glad they’re being delayed. Hopefully, when new proposals do come out, they will be for the better. “Local authorities want there to be housing delivered. And hopefully, Michael Gove will deliver on that, but it needs to be houses built in the right places, and they need to be quality houses – that's the problem.”
Helen emphasises the need for well-designed housing, referencing the building frenzy of the 1970s in response to the housing crisis that led to a prioritisation of low cost over quality. “We don't want poor builds, thrown up across the country, that aren’t going to last. I hope there is a strong push for design going forwards; surely anybody involved in the development process would want to leave a mark for the right reasons?”
This interview was originally published in our Autumn report, where we spoke to a number of industry experts in the real estate sector. Interested to read more? Click below.