933: What the Levelling Up White Paper means for planning and infrastructure
Today’s entry reports on the Levelling Up White Paper that was published on 2 February.
At 332 pages it is a long read, but there is a useful executive summary at page xii. Chapter 1 is scene-setting, and it certainly takes a broad view, informing us (twice) that Jericho was the world’s largest city from 7000-6500BC. I didn’t know that Ayutthaya was the largest from 1700-1850 when London took over until 1925 (trivia question: in which modern-day country is Ayutthaya?). Chapter 1 concludes with four objectives for levelling up:
- boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging;
- spread opportunities and improve public services, especially in those places where they are weakest;
- restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost; and
- empower local leaders and communities, especially in those places lacking local agency.
Chapter 2 analyses what needs to be done and sets out 12 ‘missions’ to be achieved by 2030; four are to achieve the first objective, four the second, three the third and one for the fourth. Chapter 3 goes through each mission and sets out policies (and how further policies will be developed) for each. I actually think the missions are quite good, tangible and measurable. However, beneath them there appears to be little of substance. For example the first one is about pay, employment and productivity and having a globally competitive city in every area in the UK, but has little focus on any of those and no mention of identified cities and the only new policy I could find was about local government pension funds investing at least 5% of their assets in local projects.
So far so feeble. There are missions on transport (improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing) and digital connectivity (4G everywhere, 5G for the majority), but the mission most relevant to planning is the tenth one (they aren’t even numbered) on housing:
‘By 2030, renters will have a secure path to ownership with the number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas; and the government’s ambition is for the number of non-decent rented homes to have fallen by 50%, with the biggest improvements in the lowest performing areas.’
The ‘policy programme’ that is set out under each mission has three elements for this one: making homeownership a reality, improving housing quality, and reforming the planning system. That last one seems a bit random as the first two have the mission covered and it might have fitted better under the ninth mission ‘pride in place’, but obviously it is of great interest to followers of this blog wherever it is. The details can be found on pages 227-228. It contains the following, worth setting out almost in full:
- local plans will be made simpler and shorter, and improved data that underpins plans will ensure that they are transparent, understandable and take into account the environment that will be developed;
- the UK Government is developing models for a new infrastructure levy which will enable local authorities to capture value from development more efficiently;
- the UK Government will enhance compulsory purchase powers to support town centre regeneration; provide further support for re-using brownfield land for development; set a more positive approach to employment land in national policy to support the provision of jobs; and increase engagement with infrastructure providers in plan making; and
- wider changes to the planning system will secure enhanced social and economic outcomes by fostering beautiful places that people can be proud of; improving democracy and engagement in planning decisions; supporting environmental protection, including support for the transition to Net Zero; and securing clear benefits for neighbourhoods and local people.
For completeness there is a brief mention of planning under the ninth mission ‘Pride in Place’ on page 216, with proposals to ‘create new local design codes to shape streets; widen the accessibility of neighbourhood planning, encouraging more accessible hybrid models for planning committees in England; and look to pilot greater empowerment of communities to shape regeneration and development plans. The ability to have a meaningful say on individual planning applications will be retained and improved through new digital technologies.’ This could be an allusion to the proposal for ‘street votes’.
The proposals in the Planning White Paper published in August 2020 (consultation feedback still being awaited) look to have been almost entirely superseded. The one survivor is the infrastructure levy, the successor to the Community Infrastructure Levy, and we don’t yet know if it will apply to infrastructure projects. The ‘zoning’ proposals in the earlier white paper are not mentioned, although simplifying local plans could still involve something like that. Having a say on planning applications was to be watered down with a focus on local plan involvement, but that appears to be being reversed.
The four-page chapter 4 then sets out next steps. This is a complete list: on engagement, the steps are ministerial visits to regional areas, local sounding boards with regular reports, and an online space to share ideas. There is a paragraph on working with the devolved administrations. There are then proposals on setting the metrics for the missions; a chunkier proposal to creating more Mayoral Combined Authorities in England and new County Deals, the creation of a new body focusing on local government data, better central/local government communication with Levelling Up Directors (not defined, but appear to be roles in central government departments), and simplification of local government funding streams. A Levelling Up Advisory Council will be established, with various sub-groups, at least on regional adoption and diffusion infrastructure, the role of private sector capital, and local communities and social infrastructure.
Last and certainly not least, there is a short section on ‘future legislation’ on page 247. This has three elements: an obligation for the UK Government to publish an annual report on delivery against the levelling up missions, strengthening devolution legislation in England, and implementing reforms to the planning system as outlined in chapter 3. Is that all? Yes, that’s all. ‘More details on these reforms will be published in due course.’
For infrastructure planning in particular, then, the relevant proposals would appear to be:
- simplification of local plans;
- a new infrastructure levy;
- enhanced compulsory purchase powers;
- more support for re-use of brownfield land;
- more support for employment land;
- engagement with infrastructure providers in plan-making;
- supporting environmental protection; and
- support for the transition to Net Zero.
What to make of it? I think that the missions are a good idea and are well-expressed. However below that the policies to achieve them are mainly a restatement of what is already happening with little that is new, and they do not appear to be entirely focused on achieving the missions as they have been expressed. At least the main proposed legislation is in the planning arena, but its appearance still seems to be a long way off (in due course), especially since the excitement of the Planning White Paper eighteen months ago.
Meanwhile on the same day, the National Audit Office published ‘Supporting local economic growth‘, an analysis of the effectiveness of central government expenditure on local initiatives. It concludes that because the government does not consistently evaluate the effect of the money it has spent, ‘it has wasted opportunities to learn which initiatives and interventions are most effective’. Let’s hope the levelling up movement will improve that situation.
Trivia answer: Ayutthaya is in Thailand.