Is the time really right for new planning regulations?

Comments from Christie McDonald, Associate

A recent report from the House of Commons Health Committee highlights that whilst the overall wellbeing of the nation is improving, health inequalities between social classes have in fact widened over the past ten years – with the health of the rich improving far quicker than that of the poor.

While the factors central to the creation of this gap are acknowledged to be complex, the report calls for a joined-up approach to its eradication, challenging the Department of Health to work with other Government departments to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles.

As such it’s suggested that the DCLG publish a planning policy statement (PPS) on health – making it a statutory requirement to consider the wellbeing of communities in all planning decisions.  In short – the report suggests that the planning profession has a responsibility to help improve the health of the nation.

There’s no denying that the development pattern of towns and cities has led to an overreliance on the car – an issue which the planning system is addressing through more ‘sustainable’ planning.  But is it reasonable to expect the system to encourage people to adopt a healthier attitude to life?

Planners already promote sites which are on public transport routes and are accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, and the DCLG, through the creation of eco-towns, aims to deliver communities which meet the very highest standards of sustainability. The creation of such towns of course, is all very well in principle, but only if they’re balanced with good quality public transport provision. There’s no point building an eco-town and giving everyone a bike if the development is on the periphery and everyone needs a car to get anywhere.

There are serious questions as to how planners would be required to operate if health issues were introduced as a material planning consideration for all applications. If, for example, an application for a retail unit which sells computer games is submitted to a local planning authority, should it be refused on the basis that it encourages people to stay indoors when they could be outside playing sport?

This may sound absurd but one of the main conclusions from the report is that local planning authorities should control the numbers of ‘fast food outlets’ in their area.  If there’s no, or little demand for fresh food, can planners really force anyone to open a shop selling such produce? Surely this is a matter for Department of Health in conjunction with the Department of Education?

Planning policies can be drawn up which promote healthy living and these polices can be used to determine planning applications – however let’s face it, people will always make applications to open commercial premises with the aim of making money.  And the question remains whether in the midst of a recession, now is really the time to be introducing further planning regulations.

The planning system has already changed to the point where it  is obliged to provide such public commodities as affordable housing, open space, children’s play equipment, CCTV, litter bins etc, and it seems that it may now be required to take on even more responsibility.  It’s true that times change and the planning system has to evolve, but a line has to be drawn to allow planners to carry out their primary role without unreasonable requests from central government and other outside influences.


This article was published in Local Government News (June 2009).