Levelling up the United Kingdom
White Paper February 2022
Impact on the Planning System, LPAs & Recruitment Patterns
By Ben Rose
On the 2nd February 2022, the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove unveiled the government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper. While a great deal has been spoken about levelling up since the 2019 general election, the release of this white paper is the first time the government has publicly elucidated a definition and planned approach.
The publication and the new policies and strategies it contains are promised to have a significant, positive impact on all those who live in the United Kingdom. According to the paper, ‘levelling up means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish. It means people everywhere living longer and more fulfilling lives and benefitting from sustained rises in living standards and well-being.’. Plainly, the aim is to address the vast regional disparities and inequalities across the UK, in every possible way.
The government aims to achieve this overarching goal by taking steps to ensure the ‘missions’ they set are a success. These include a boost in productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector; spreading opportunities and improving public services (targeting where weakest); restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging and empowering local leaders and communities. These are just a handful of the objectives our government has identified as key areas to level up our nation.
As a specialist town planning recruitment consultant operating in the public sector, the release of this publication was undeniably of interest to myself and the wider team. This was predominantly due to the strategies that are pertinent to the planning sector and the possible impacts these may have on the balance of the recruitment market. Looking specifically at planning, the new white paper seems to have breathed some form of life back into the planning reforms that the government set out in the much talked about, ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper released in March 2020. With the government’s response to the consultation of those reforms still being awaited with bated breath, many see this as a welcome reminder that not all reforms proposed are as dead as some now believe.
As with any reform or change, many people within the planning sector will be impacted in a variety of different ways and may have new priorities and responsibilities to ensure the goals of Levelling Up are met. Certain areas of planning are sure to see an increased demand for experienced and capable individuals with a specific skill set. Throughout this report, I aim to express our views on how the Levelling Up white paper will impact specific areas of our planning system, the influence it may have on Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and how recruitment patterns could be altered, as a result.
One of the standout areas within the paper, specifically aligned with planning, is to ensure people within the United Kingdom ascertain a sense of ‘pride in place’ towards their local and wider community. The government’s particular focus to achieve this is to concentrate on the regeneration of our towns and cities; most significantly for the areas that have been ‘left behind’ in the past due to a lack of funding. The paper promises that ‘101 towns across England will receive £2.4bn from the Towns Fund’ to unlock their economic potential. ‘The £830m Future High Streets Fund will be used to regenerate 72 towns and high streets’ to help them recover from decline since the pandemic. 20 new towns and cities are to benefit from entirely new transformational regeneration schemes, starting with Wolverhampton and Sheffield, alongside a £1.5 billion loan scheme for smaller developers that aims to deliver 42,000 homes.
Despite existing funding being allocated to the proposed regeneration schemes for our communities and places, there is no new funding being raised to bring these schemes forward. Alternatively, the funding announced as part of the spending review last year, is to be ‘refocused’ in order to accelerate these new priorities. Although some believe the white paper provides clarity on how this funding is to be spent, the concept that it is being refocused instead of fresh funding being made available has led to some anger from those within parliament. Some MPs in particular slamming the use of ‘recycled money pots’ and going on to accuse the document of being ‘cobbled together in a rush’. There is serious concern over the shortfall between the end goals and the means made available to reach them.
In conjunction with the theme of refocusing, it’s important to note, Homes England is also to be re-purposed to drive the country’s regeneration efforts. This new purpose is in addition to its existing housing delivery agenda and the provision of affordable homes in England. This is a lot for one agency to bear, even one as experienced and established as Homes England. As such, the white paper confirms a list of actions that they are expected to take to provide a 'practical regeneration offer to places' across England.
We expect to see an increase in the demand for both large-scale planning and regeneration project delivery professionals from many local authorities in the coming years. This comes as our towns and cities will need to decide how best to utilise the funds they are allocated. Perhaps it has never been as important for local authorities to effectively consult and communicate with a large, diverse array of stakeholders, as the aim of levelling up is to positively impact the greatest number of people possible. Without doubt the performance and ability of those responsible for the regeneration of our communities will be under increased scrutiny in the wake of this publication. I believe local authorities will take swift action in assessing whether their regeneration departments are fit for purpose, especially those in the areas identified by the government as having been ‘left behind’.
Although development and regeneration seem to be the key focus of large swathes of the white paper when it comes to planning, it all needs to align with the local plans across our regions. The planning policy in place now and currently being drafted. For example, Basildon council have just voted to withdraw their local plan amid government promises to achieve ‘further greening of the green belt’, as stated in page 211 of the white paper. This demonstrates the challenges now posed to policy departments across the UK and explicitly highlights the immediate impact on the planning system.
The paper ever so simply states that local plans ‘will be made simpler and shorter’. Only two-fifths of councils have adopted plans in the last five years which ‘limits effective community engagement over development’. Together with simplifying plans, it says that ‘improved data’ will ensure that they are increasingly ‘transparent and understandable’. The hope is that this will culminate to produce a cleaner system that is easier to engage with, giving increased power back to the communities it impacts the most, a laudable aim. I believe the theory behind this will be welcomed by policy planners and beyond, although they may fear putting it into practice will prove difficult. Especially, given the confusion and difficulty of ensuring new priorities are met within the local plan.
In order to further green the greenbelt, as promised, funding for housing delivery will be focused on brownfield sites and away from London and the wider southeast, notoriously the most invested upon areas for development. Linking this to the overarching goal, it is detailed that new developments sprouted from brownfield land ‘will be supported by an Office for Place which will pioneer design and beauty, promoting better architectural aesthetics to ensure they enhance existing settlements, gladden the eye and lift the heart.’. Consequently, achieving the overall goal of Levelling Up that specific area. We believe that this will sharply increase the demand for those experienced in undertaking land viability assessments, as LPAs focus on identifying the best brownfield sites to develop. Urban designers’ expertise may also be increasingly called upon as the aesthetically pleasing nature of development will truly define whether areas are successfully levelling up in line with the government’s expectations.
Many of the Levelling Up white paper’s provisions, such as those for encouraging the use of brownfield land and promoting beauty and good design, were foreshadowed in the previous white paper, Planning for the Future. However, it could be said that in some areas the government has potentially changed its stance, with most agreeing for the better. For example, there was much concern that Planning for the Future’s proposals would reduce the local community’s ability to express views on, or object to, individual planning applications. However, the Levelling Up white paper says that ‘the ability to have a meaningful say on individual planning applications will be retained’. I believe the planning community will be relieved about this correction, although it could raise concerns over the government’s commitment to following through with other notable areas of the previous white paper.
It certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that many of the aspects belonging to the last white paper have been reiterated under the pretense that it is new information. Many opposition MPs have needed no invitation to accuse the paper of such things. Lisa Nandy, the shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, going on to suggest that the white paper was ‘a shopping list of recycled policies and fiddled figures’. With this in mind, a dramatic shift in priorities from the reforms of the previous paper are unlikely, although it may serve as a wake-up call or catalyst for change to materialise more quickly.
With any proposed changes, especially those tied into the fabric of our infrastructure, communities and national development, the impact on LPAs is often immediate and profound. Without doubt, LPAs are working hard already to find answers to many of the questions raised by this release. A sound and reliable support system is vital to ensure that our local councils aren’t, in a sense, hung out to dry and can begin piecing together how the changes affect them.
By far one of the most intriguing developments brought forward in the Levelling Up white paper is talk of a pioneering devolution framework that is to be offered to large parts of England. This will see devolution extend beyond metropolitan areas for the first time and could result in enormous changes to the current system used to govern our local areas. The roll-out is underpinned by four principles; ‘effective leadership, sensible geography, flexibility and appropriate accountability.’
There are 3 levels of devolution set out within the framework.
· Level 3 – A single institution or County Council with a directly elected mayor (DEM), across a functional economic area (FEA) or whole county area.
· Level 2 – A single institution or County Council without a DEM, across a FEA or whole county area.
· Level 1 – Local authorities working together across a FEA or whole county area - for example, through a joint committee.
It is worth noting that the government’s preferred model is Level 3, which involves devolution of locally led brownfield development funding, amongst other significant powers. However, they understand that a ‘one size fits all’ attitude will not work in this scenario. Certain areas of the country are already being encouraged to start formal negotiations to agree new county deals. These include Cornwall, Derbyshire & Derby, Devon, Plymouth & Torbay, Durham, Hull & East Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire & Nottingham, and Suffolk.
Wherever these deals are agreed, immense change and unfamiliarity will set in. After all, this framework will provide single, accountable institutions covering massive areas instead of the current system of local districts and boroughs that have deep-rooted ways of ensuring effective planning on a concentrated level. We believe this would undoubtedly alter the way that planning recruitment is managed on a regional level and that it could result in streamlined planning departments with fewer staff. Recruitment is far more likely to be centralised which could be positive or negative depending on how it is executed. Positively, recruitment budget could be easier to track and savings made, particularly through staff sharing. Negatively, smaller scale issues within local departments could be overlooked and a larger institution may feel increasingly corporate, possibly alienating existing staff. Many understand the value that these agreements hold for certain areas, but could this be seen as overkill for others? How will so many planning departments agree and manage the merging of local plans and development goals? There are a host of questions surrounding the devolution framework. Many are hoping for more clarity in the not-so-distant future, once negotiations begin.
Overall, the Levelling Up white paper will have a major impact on almost every facet and sector of the UK’s infrastructure. Many of these work in conjunction with the town planning industry, relying upon the planning system’s ability to run efficiently, no matter the strain it bears. Without question, due to knock-on effects, our team are anticipating this to intensify recruitment activity within planning teams at all levels, from Assistant Planners to Directors and possibly even creating completely new roles and opportunities. Regeneration departments are most likely to develop new positions as they attempt to meet the demand for major regeneration projects across our nation’s towns and cities. Interim solutions to fill these gaps will be preferred given the temporary nature of project design and delivery. Planning policy teams across the UK will be taking swift action to identify any recruitment needs that will support and quicken the drafting or submission of their local plans. One Surrey-based LPA has just submitted their first local plan in over 25 years and the Policy Manager stated, ‘be gentle with us Michael’, a satirical plea to the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove. This just goes to show the immediate impact this paper has had on those working within the industry.
Levelling Up will be a gradual process, with incremental gains piling up to turn the government’s vision into reality. It’s by no means a small feat and, once again, planning professionals within private and public sectors will be challenged in new ways and forced to adapt. The release of the Planning for the Future and Levelling Up white papers has laid out some form of roadmap. Although many will yearn for more detail in places, one thing is certain, planning is one of the keys to unlocking a ‘levelled up’ United Kingdom.