Planning reforms clear ground for US trade deal

Julian Mellor explores how the government’s proposed planning reforms could hand power to US developers by removing the decision-making power of local planning committees.

Julian Mellor

The government plans to ‘completely rewrite the English planning system’. But why? And why now? 

Our planning system has evolved over more than 100 years, first in response to poor public health, then to the emerging welfare state and, more recently, to heightened awareness of our environmental footprint. Planning strategy is formed by government with final decisions usually made locally in a system that is mostly fair, democratic and proportionate. But it is also one in which planners feel disempowered, communities feel ignored and developers feel frustrated. 

Government has long found fault with the planning system and is forever seeking to improve it. So publication of ‘Planning for the future’ is perhaps not such a surprise. It has been presented as both “radical reform” of a process that is no longer fit “for human habitation” and a response to people’s basic needs that have been highlighted during the Covid-19 lockdown. But both these presentations fail to identify the wider motivation; that of Brexit and the forthcoming trade deal with the US.

For the context we need to go back to 2003 when there was much discussion about the ongoing development and potential changes to the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). I was asked by Friends of the Earth to examine the impact of GATS on the planning system, in which I was working. 

GATS sought to remove the protective rules and regulations that could prevent a company from supplying services to another country. A significant barrier to trade was seen as any lack of transparency (i.e corruption) in decision-making. The WTO’s view was that “consistent, uniform, impartial and reasonable administration of regulations” was essential. 
Few would argue with this, but there was a risk that the transparency agenda could be a Trojan horse to remove the judgement and discretion of local decision makers. And inside the horse, was the US.

In one of the US’ submissions to the GATS review (the Doha Round) they identified a number of obstacles to trade in the distribution sector (including retail). These included the “lack of transparency of domestic laws and regulations and fairness of administration, including lack of pre-determined, objective criteria for licensing (e.g. planning) requirements”, a “lack of readily available information on zoning” and the “denial of authorisation to (distribution) facilities under prescribed condition”. 

The English planning system abounds with information, conditions and attempts to ensure fairness but the US proposals nevertheless posed a threat to a system in which the judgement and discretion of the planners and planning committees was central to the decision-making process.

In the end the Doha Round ground to a halt, but the UK and the US are now negotiating their post-Brexit trade deal and the shadow of Doha remains. In its strategic approach document the UK notes that the US’ trade agreements generally “extend beyond tariff liberalisation and seek to address other important issues, such as... the opening of market access in the provision of services” and that “US agreements have built upon GATS” with “an obligation requiring regulatory transparency”.

This is born out by the US’ ‘summary of objectives’ in which it states that they will require “strong provisions on transparency... that allow stakeholders in other countries to provide comments... and require authorities to address significant issues”. With regard to services (including distribution) it will seek to “improve the transparency and predictability of regulatory procedures in the UK”. ‘Predictability’ is the key word here, and it ties in with the proposals in the planning white paper.

“Our proposals seek a significantly simpler, faster and more predictable system” writes the Secretary of State in the foreword to ‘Planning for the Future’. Later the paper states: “Land use planning and development control are forms of regulation, and like any regulation should be predictable... But too often the planning system is unpredictable”. 

The cause of this unpredictability is identified as the separation between the strategic local plan and the planning permission process, something it says is unique in the world. It claims that we have “a system too dependent on the views of a particular official at a particular time, and not transparent and accessible requirements” and that environmental impact assessments inhibit transparency. The white paper advocates instead a zoning system, like they have in the US, with local plans that are transparent, standardised and “supported by a new template” with a presumption in favour of development for compliant proposals. 

‘Planning for the Future’ presents its proposals as good for community involvement. But it will strip away the decision-making role of the planning committee and the discretionary judgment of the planning officer. This fits very neatly into the trade negotiations with the US and will be welcomed by developers, but it does little to take back the control promised by Brexit.

Julian Mellor has spent his career working with the planning system in the public, private and community sectors. He was a Board member of Friends of the Earth when he was asked to assess the local impact of GATS.