The consultation period for the government’s Planning for the Future White Paper closed at the end of October. The stated aims of the proposals issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are ‘to streamline and modernise the planning process, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available where it is needed’. (1)

Having worked in the field of conservation for over thirty years, I’ve witnessed a number of attempts at ‘streamlining’ planning and it is always a concern – not because I’m a nimby, opposed to all change and development, but because streamlining often does not leave room for noticing and valuing the locally distinct in our historical, cultural and ecological landscapes.

The current White Paper suggests three new categories for land: ‘Growth’, ‘Renewal’ and ‘Protected’ with differing levels of consultation required for proposed development in each – which the paper claims could halve the time it takes to secure planning permission. Dividing England’s finely-grained urban and rural landscapes into these generalised blocks will inevitably be problematic. As pointed out by Common Ground  many years ago ‘Rarely do strict edges exist, as at the coast…Gradation is the common way in which one place ends and another begins.’ (2) Rather than the ‘devil being in the detail’, actually that is often where the significance lies –in the patterns of settlement influenced by geology and climate and reflected in the way communities have responded and adapted to living on the land.

Looking at the White Paper from the point of view of NAT’s priorities, it is worrying to note that archaeology does not get mentioned once. There is no acknowledgement that sites and areas of archaeological interest are as likely to occur in ‘Growth’ areas as in the ‘Protected’ areas – but this is what you get in a country that has been so densely settled over thousands of years. The majority of such assets are undesignated and/or currently undiscovered and so the proposal for automatic outline permissions in ‘Growth’ areas is of deep concern. As the CiFA and CBA have pointed out, any ‘permission in principle’ will cause huge problems if, in the event of work starting on site, significant archaeology is discovered – both in terms of the conservation of the asset but also for the developers, if the site then becomes unviable. (3) Under all three categories there would need to be new procedures for evaluating the archaeological potential of sites right at the start when the land category is being researched and designated; and there would also need to be more granular assessments once specific sites are proposed for development.

Although streamlining is an attractive word, implying efficiency and smoothness, it is not a concept that applies easily to our cultural landscapes which we value for the exact opposite – their rich layers of distinctiveness, detail, and particularity. It will be vital to ensure that Planning for the Future does not forget the intricacies of our past.

  1. Planning for the Future White Paper August 2020 Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government
  2. Sue Clifford and Angela King ‘Losing Your Place’ in Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity: Essays for a Conference September 28 1993 Sue Clifford and Angela King (eds) Common Ground
  3. “‘Planning for the Future” and archaeology’ White Paper briefing 15 October 2020 Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA)/Council for British Archaeology (CBA)

Image: Middleton Mount