Blog: Planning reform and the health of the nation

Blog: Planning reform and the health of the nation

In this latest guest blog, our Healthier Place, Healthier Future Project Officer Catriona MacRae speaks to those working within the planning system to gather their perspectives on the new Planning White Paper, and consider how these reforms may impact on the health of the nation.

The Childhood Obesity Trailblazer programme was set up to support local authorities to test ways to tackle the ongoing proliferation of overweight and obesity amongst young people all over the country. The Pennine Lancashire Trailblazer – Healthier Place, Healthier Future – explores how to achieve policy and system change through the planning system and other levers (system leadership, business engagement and a bottoms-up approach with social engagement). However, with constant tinkering of the planning system, it has often felt difficult to achieve this.

The expansion of permitted development (PD)[1][2] is a key example, with councils and communities not able to have their say on a range of developments that shape the environment they live in. Research commissioned by the Government[4], published back in July, highlighted the poor health outcomes those living in homes created through PD experienced, and yet PD was subsequently expanded further. Changes have also been made to the Use Classes Order in England, introducing three new use classes, to take effect at the start of September. Hot food takeaways currently ‘A5’ will fall under ‘sui generis’, potentially making it hard for businesses to find new premises due to the need for a change of use permission.

The ‘Healthy New Towns’[5] programme, launched by NHS England in 2015 and funded by Government, aimed to explore how the development of new places could create healthier and connected communities with integrated and high-quality health services. The programme selected ten demonstrator sites to explore the “how-to” of healthy place-making. The programme report ‘Putting Health into Place’ draws out key lessons and lists ten principles to deliver healthier, connected and integrated places. The report also states the collaboration between the programme and government to “influence policy in housing, planning and health” – but does this link in with the latest reforms?

The planning system has a duty to support people’s health and wellbeing and should strive towards sustainable development, taking in to account the climate crisis. The system needs to be smart, locally sensitive and strategically effective. It has to be democratic, inclusive and have a clear focus on tackling inequalities using a strong evidence base to inform and address local health needs.

Does this White Paper address this? We hear from our colleagues in planning and public health working locally in North West England with a national input to disseminate what the latest planning reforms mean.


Government’s planning white paper sets out to radically reform the system.

Christine Whittle, Principal Planning Officer, Planning Policy, Hyndburn Borough Council

There have been a series of reforms to the planning system announced in recent months as part of the Government’s drive to ‘Build Build Build’, culminating in the much anticipated white paper “Planning for the Future” published on the 6th August[6].

In his foreword, Prime Minister Boris Johnson states that this is “Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. The reforms aim for a planning system that “actively encourages sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development rather than obstructing it” ….and that gives local people a greater say over what gets built in their community.

Like so many other unprecedented changes brought about by the pandemic, the fundamental shifts proposed to the current system have been accelerated by the prospect of the massive economic and social challenges that the entire nation now faces. The paper points out that with so many people spending more time at home, this has spotlighted the division between those who have welcomed the opportunity to spend time in the places they enjoy and those who have spent lockdown in small, substandard homes, distant from services and open spaces, struggling to pay rent, or indeed find a home of their own at all.

Planning matters

The paper recognises that where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or how safe we feel in our day to day activities, stating that “Places affect us from the air that we breathe to our ultimate sense of purpose and wellbeing”.  Through the changes set out, the Government wants to see environmentally friendly homes, green spaces near to where people live and places where tree lined streets are the norm.  They want a new focus on design and quality, enhancing the environment, health and character of local areas.

The key pillars of change

Firstly, there is a move towards a zonal system with areas allocated as either “Growth”, “Renewal” or “Protected”.  Once zoned for growth or renewal it is assumed that the land has ‘permission in principle’.  These will require much more emphasis on community engagement at the early plan-making stage, aiming to speed up the process later down the line.  Protected areas will include Green Belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), conservation areas, local wildlife sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space.

Development management policies will be established nationally, with local policies restricted to site or area-specific requirements.

Local Plans will be digitised, with increased emphasis on map-based planning to make them shorter and more accessible. Local plans should be produced within 30 months and be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, replacing the existing tests of soundness. This would see the sustainability appraisal system abolished and the duty to cooperate removed.

The use of the standard method for establishing housing requirement figures is here to stay and the results it generates will now be binding.  This is designed to ensure that enough land is released in the areas where affordability is worst, to stop land supply being a barrier to enough homes being built. The housing requirement would factor in land constraints and opportunities to more effectively use land, including through densification, to ensure that the land is identified in the most appropriate areas and housing targets are met.

Design guidance and codes are expected to be produced – these should be prepared locally with community involvement, and their content should be made more binding on decisions about development.

The government will facilitate improvements in energy-efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver the commitment for net-zero by 2050.

A new Infrastructure Levy will replace the current developer contributions mechanism, intended to simplify the process, accelerate delivery and enable more affordable homes to be built.

What has the reaction been so far?

On first reading, much of what is proposed makes sense – the planning system can be complex, lengthy and difficult to access and understand. However, many commentators have pointed out that the paper lacks the necessary detail in how exactly it will bring about the change necessary to tackle this. Some, such as the Town and Country Planning Association, have even deeper concerns stating that “the proposal will undermine local democracy, marginalise local councils and fail to achieve the kind of high quality places that the government is committed to delivering”.

In particular, although the paper recognises the important contribution that good planning can make to people’s sense of wellbeing – which is laudable – there is a lack of clarity on how issues such as improving health and tackling climate change are to be addressed.

Local perspective

There is no doubt that much of the debate surrounding the failure to deliver good quality places and enough homes are very valid in many parts of country, specifically where house prices and demand are high. However, measures such as the binding use of a standard method of calculating housing need, fail to take account of areas, such as parts of East Lancashire, where a more tailored local approach may be needed which doesn’t just perpetuate economic decline and loss of population but instead brings about transformational change including the good quality, healthy homes that are badly needed.


Planning matters for health improvement: an initial public health perspective on the Planning White Paper

Paula Hawley-Evans, Health and Well Being Programme Lead, Public Health England North West and Michael Chang, Programme Manager – Planning and Health, Public Health England

A functioning, effective and inclusive spatial planning system is a necessary pre-requisite for creating the kind of healthy and equitable places local communities want. Public Health England’s evidence review on green spaces[7] highlights the important collaborative role between planners and public health professionals to realise the benefits from improved access to green spaces. And PHE’s COVID-19 impact review[8] found many of the risk factors that disproportionately affects the Black and Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities relate to the environments in which they live, work and play.

The ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper was published on Thursday 6th August with forewords from the Prime Minister and Housing Secretary providing a preamble to 22 proposals for public consultation. The premise of the White Paper is that a poor planning process results in poor outcomes following recommendations from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission[9] and the Raynsford Review[10], and there is a need to bring planning into the 21st century. There is a recognition where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health. Planning matters.

The heart of the proposals is to create beautiful places and communities and ensuring the process to deliver them is streamlined and support innovation. There are proposals to simplify the local plan-making process and contents, strengthen national policy so local plans can focus on managing development in designated areas of Growth, Renewal and Protected, and through clear local rules and design expectations. The proposals also seek to simplify arrangements for environmental assessments of plans and projects, and for reform developer contributions through an Infrastructure Levy. These proposals have direct and indirect implications for how public health teams will operate with planners and what health outcomes can be achieved for the benefit of current and future generations.

Please note these proposals are in addition to planning regulation changes already introduced this year as a result of and in response to impact of COVID-19, such as extending permitted development rights to increase housing delivery and support town centre renewal, and Use Class Order changes[11] to food retail classification to protect local pubs and prevent proliferation of hot food takeaways.

There is a recognition that those working at the interface of public health and planning, particularly in local authorities, have established, refined and innovated their practices within the existing planning system. Established practices in places such as Stockport, Rochdale and the Pennine Lancashire Trailblazer have taken the form of relationships, protocols, policies and guidance, and have no doubt contributed to improving health and wellbeing, and reducing inequalities. Therefore those working across the North West in public, private and charitable sectors with committed to improving health of local communities should consider what the likely implications may be on existing and future process or outcomes. This is a once in a generation opportunity to secure a strong foundation for the health of communities across the North West. Planning matters.


Next steps

Looking to the future the Trailblazer will keep engaging with stakeholders across Pennine Lancashire, the North West and nationally to understand fully how future planning reforms may impact the influence and hard work the Trailblazer has achieved so far and aims to continue with. Most notably, planning for healthier weight environments and restricting the proliferation of hot food takeaways.

The Government is asking for views on this White Paper and the consultation is open until the 29th October 2020.  They are also running a separate but related consultation on “Changes to the current planning system” with responses due by 1st October 2020:



[1] MHCLG, 2015. The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.

[2] MHCLG, 2020. New laws to extend homes upwards and revitalise town centres

[3] London Assembly Labour, 2019. Slums of the Future.

[4] UCL and University of Liverpool, 2020. Research into the quality of standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights.

[5] NHS England, 2019. Putting Health into Place.


[7] Public Health England, 2020. Improving access to greenspace: A new review for 2020.

[8] Public Health England, 2020. COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities.

[9] Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

[10] The Town and Country Planning Association, 2018. The Raynsford Review of Planning.

[11] MHCLG, 2020. The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020

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