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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually referred to simply as the United Kingdom or the UK, is a country in northwest Europe with a population of approximately 67 million. It comprises the entire island of Great Britain and parts of Ireland, where it shares the only land border with the Republic of Ireland, and a number of smaller islands. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands as well as a number of other overseas territories outside Europe are self-governing crown dependencies and thus not part of the UK. The UK is separated from mainland Europe by the English Channel and the North Sea. Between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland lies the Irish Sea. The west coast of Scotland and southwest England faces the Atlantic.

The UK is a unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy that has gradually evolved over the centuries bringing together four nations, which each have their own identity (Bogdanor, 1999). England is by far the largest country and dominates the UK politically and culturally. Wales was annexed to England in the 16th century after centuries of conflict but has partially maintained its own language. Welsh is an official language in Wales and is the main language of one-fifth of the population, predominantly in north and west Wales. The Act of Union in 1707 formally abolished the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, and established the United Kingdom, though Scotland maintained some institutions, including a different legal system. The Gaelic language, once widespread in the Highlands, is now only spoken by about 1% of the Scottish population, mainly in the Outer Hebrides. Ireland became a formal part of the United Kingdom in 1800, though the relationship with England and later the UK had been colonial in nature long before. The Catholic majority were treated as second-class citizens that were excluded from positions of power, which ultimately gave rise to Irish nationalism and resulted in the partition of Ireland in 1921 with the southern part becoming an independent state which is now the Republic of Ireland and the northern part (Northern Ireland) remaining in the United Kingdom. The latter was characterised by decades of violent conflict known as the Troubles, which was finally settled by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The vast majority of the population lives in England (56.3 million), which is much more densely populated than the other nations (432 people per km2). It consists of a dense network of cities particularly in the southeast, the Midlands and the north of England. Scotland (5.5 million), Wales (3.2 million) and Northern Ireland (1.9 million) all have much lower population densities. In particular in Scotland, where the majority of the population lives in the urban belt comprised of Glasgow and Edinburgh, vast areas of the country are wilderness.

The UK economy is characterised by a stark north-south divide: London and the southeast dominate the national economy, whereas the former industrial heartlands in the Midlands and the north of England are still recovering from the decline of manufacturing and coal mining since the 1970s. Cities in particular went into decline, partially aided by slum clearance and overspill estates. More recently, however, cities have regained population (Dembski et al., 2019). Regional disparities have been increasing since the 1960s, making the UK one of the most unequal developed countries in the world on a range of indicators and the decoupling of the London economy is increasingly seen in critical terms (McCann, 2016, 2020). More recently the Scottish economy has fared better than most English regions, a difference ascribed to the devolution of powers (McCann, 2016).

In 2016 the UK voted to leave the European Union in a non-binding referendum, which resulted in the departure of the UK on 31 January 2020. In the 2014–20 programming period for EU cohesion funds, two UK regions were eligible for the highest funding category with a GDP of less than 75% of the EU average: Cornwall and West Wales and the Valleys, which received Objective 1 funding for three consecutive programming periods. Merseyside for two programming periods (1994–2006) and Highlands and Islands and Northern Ireland (1994–1999), as well as South Yorkshire (2000–2006) were eligible for Objective 1 (Di Cataldo, 2016). Paradoxically, regional economies which were more dependent on EU markets had a higher vote share to leave the EU and will therefore be more affected by Brexit (Los et al., 2017). It is likely that the already stark regional disparities will increase (Billing et al., 2019; Di Cataldo, 2016).

General information

Name of country United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Capital, population of the capital (2019) London, 8,961,989 (ONS, 2020a)
Surface area 242,743 km²
Total population (2019) 66,796,807 (ONS, 2020a)
Population density (2019) 275 inhabitants/km²
Population growth rate (2019) 0.5% (ONS, 2020)
Degree of urbanisation (2018) 83.4% (UN, 2018)
Human development index (2019) 13 (UNDP, 2020)
GDP (2019) EUR 2,526,615.2 million (Eurostat [NAMA_10_GDP])
GDP per capita (2019) EUR 37,830 (Eurostat [nama_10_pc])
GDP growth (2019) 1.3% (ONS, 2020b)
Unemployment rate (2019) 3.8%
Land use (England only, 2018) 19.6% forest and scrubland 1.4% inland waters 62.8% agricultural land 8.3% built-up land
Sectoral structure (2018) 82.4% services and administration 16.4% industry and construction 1.2% agriculture and forestry (OECD, 2020)

Administrative structure and system of governance

The United Kingdom has a complex administrative structure which is characterised by the union of four nations and the lack of a written constitution. The UK is considered as one of the most centralised countries (McCann, 2016), despite devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making it a quasi-federal state. Administrative structures have evolved somewhat independently and therefore differ between the nations.

Although generally characterised as a unitary state, the UK exhibits features of a quasi-federal state with an asymmetric and incomplete system of devolution whereby different constitutional arrangements exist for each of the four nations. In the late 1990s, the Labour government under Tony Blair set in motion an extensive programme of devolution, resulting in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 marking the end of decades of violent political conflict also involved the establishment of an elected Northern Ireland Assembly. Given the sensitive historical context it is based on the idea of power sharing and designed so that no single faction can command a majority. This, however, has resulted in impasses and, as a consequence, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for prolonged periods since its inception (2002–2007 and 2017–2020) during which time the UK government took over. England has been described as the ‘gaping hole in the devolution settlement’ (Hazell, 2000) as it remains under direct rule of the UK parliament. As each of the nations has different devolved powers, or none in the case of England, this process of devolution has been described as a ‘piecemeal approach to constitutional change’ (Jeffrey, 2009). Important devolved matters include health care, education, economic development, local government and planning.

As part of its wider devolution agenda, New Labour had introduced a system of regional governance for the eight English regions in 1999. This consisted of already existing Government Offices for the Regions administering and coordinating national policies, Regional Development Agencies to deliver economic growth and Regional Assemblies responsible for regional planning, forming a so-called ‘troika’ of regional bodies (Pearce and Ayres, 2006). The Greater London Authority was established as a ninth region, with a mayor and an elected assembly. Attempts to also establish elected regional bodies in the eight English regions failed in the first referendum in the North East in 2004 and heralded the decline of English regionalism and a shift towards city regions (Harrison, 2012).

In 2010, the incoming Conservative-led coalition government abolished all regional institutions with the exception of the Greater London Authority and continued strengthening city regions, a process that had already started under New Labour. This culminated in the creation of sub-regional Combined Authorities in England and bespoke devolution deals that are best understood as contracts between central and local governments (Sandford, 2017). As part of these deals elected mayors have been introduced in eight of the ten Combined Authorities. The governance structures and powers vary widely, with Greater Manchester undisputedly leading the way (Houghton et al., 2016). Combined Authority status can be proposed by local authorities or the secretary of state, but never against the will of a local authority. Whilst some Combined Authorities are effectively a reincarnation of the metropolitan counties that existed between 1974 and 1986 when abolished under the Thatcher government, political conflict has significantly delayed or reshaped boundaries in some former metropolitan counties (e.g. Newcastle/Tyneside, Sheffield/South Yorkshire).

The UK has gradually changed from a two-tier system of local government to a unitary one. In principle, England has a two-tier system of local government consisting of the county councils as the upper tier and district councils as the lower tier. After the abolition of metropolitan counties, metropolitan districts became de facto single-tier or unitary authorities. Many county councils have been abolished and changed into unitary authorities since the mid-1990s, leaving England with a hybrid model of single and two-tier local authorities without any underlying principle (Wilson and Game, 2011). County councils have been abolished in Scotland and Wales (1996) and Northern Ireland (1973) by central government so that all now have single-tier local governments.

Local authority areas are comparatively large by international standards, with an average population of over 175,000 across 379 local authority districts in the UK, based on the official 2019 mid-year population estimates. With the exception of the City of London, Rutland and four island councils, no local authority has a population below 50,000. The largest local authority is Birmingham (1.1 million) and the smallest is the Isles of Scilly (2,200). This is reflected in rural councils in particular having very large areas – Highland in Scotland is nearly the size of Belgium – whereas some of the largest cities have comparatively small territories (e.g. Manchester). Districts often contain multiple centres of equal size (e.g. the large towns of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole form a unitary authority of the same name) and the name of the district does not always reflect the name of the largest town (e.g. Huddersfield is by far the largest town in Kirklees Council).

In the absence of a written constitution, the supremacy of parliament is one of the defining features of UK politics. The UK parliament consists of the sovereign (Crown-in-Parliament) and two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which both meet in the Palace of Westminster. Whilst new legislation (bills) can be introduced in either House, the powers of the House of Lords are much more limited and exclude taxation and government spending. Rules can be made and unmade by a simple majority, as long as the correct parliamentary proceedings have been followed.

General elections are held at least every five years for the House of Commons, while the House of Lords consists mostly of life peers appointed by the monarch. The UK has 650 constituencies which are each represented by a single member of parliament, commonly referred to as MP. Due to the first-past-the-post system (also called: single-member plurality voting or the winner-takes-all), the UK effectively has a two-party system, which has resulted in single party majority governments. It is only in more recent times that other parties, particularly in the devolved nations, play an increasing role.

The government is headed by the prime minister. There is no election for the prime minister; instead the monarch appoints an MP who is deemed able to command a majority in the House of Commons. The monarch also appoints or dismisses government ministers on the advice of the prime minister. The Cabinet is the government’s official decision-making body. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and comprises the secretaries of state – ministers responsible for leading a government department – and other senior ministers. The devolved governments are headed by a first minister.

Local government and planning are devolved matters and therefore, in addition to the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, each devolved administration has its own responsible directorates. The secretary of state, or minister in the devolved nations, has far-reaching powers to directly intervene in local planning matters by directing a local authority to modify its plan or by ‘calling in’ a planning application and taking the decision out of the hands of the local planning authority, usually if ‘planning issues of more than local importance are involved’ (Carborn, 1999 quoted in Cullingworth et al., 2015: 53).

Numerous executive agencies are responsible for carrying out the day-to-day business on behalf of the government, many of which operate at a national level. The most important executive agency of the planning system is the Planning Inspectorate (England and Wales), the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (Scotland) and the Planning Appeals Commission (Northern Ireland). Their main function is planning and environmental appeals, the examination of local plans and other specialist planning case work on behalf of the government. They also advise the secretary of state (or minister) on applications that have been called in.

The central local government organ is the council. Traditionally, the elected council formed the executive, and most councils operated a committee system whereby some decisions were delegated to committees consisting of elected councillors and advised by officers. This has been largely replaced by a system with a stronger split between the executive and the non-executive functions of local government. In most councils the executive consists of a Leader elected by fellow councillors and the Cabinet. Only a few local authorities opted for the mayoral model with a directly elected mayor (Wilson and Game, 2011).

Local elections in the UK usually take place every four years. All local authorities are subdivided into wards (electoral areas in Northern Ireland) which return one or more councillors (Scotland and Northern Ireland have exclusively multi-member electoral districts, whereas both types exist in England and Wales). In England local governments can choose whether they want to have all councillors elected in a single year for a four-year term (‘all out’) or partial elections whereby either half of the councillors every second year (‘by halves’) or a third of the councillors every three years in four (‘by thirds) are up for election. While only a small number of councils vote ‘by halves’, nearly a third of all councils vote ‘by thirds’, which means political majorities can change on an annual basis. Councillors in England and Wales are elected via the first-past-the-post system which can result in substantial majorities and in the most extreme case full control of the council (e.g. in 2015 all 96 councillors in Manchester were members of the Labour party). Scotland and Northern Ireland have a proportional voting system allowing for candidates to be ranked. Turnout for local elections across the UK is low and has been around 35% unless it coincides with a general election.

Local authorities are the main provider of frontline services, though some key services such as health services and social benefits are provided centrally, whilst others, such as utilities, have long been privatised (see figure). Many services are also commissioned to the private sector (e.g. waste collection). In areas with two-tier local government, powers are divided between the county and the district, whereas some metropolitan districts and unitary authorities share powers with a combined authority. The latter has resumed some of the strategic planning powers which were previously held by metropolitan counties. The powers of local government are comparable between the UK’s four nations with the exception of Northern Ireland (NI), where they exercise a much more limited range of powers and services are provided centrally by the Northern Ireland Executive.

Distribution of power among local authorities in the UK by council type. Source: Institute for Government

Distribution of power among local authorities in the UK by council type. Source: Institute for Government

The austerity politics that began under the incoming coalition government in 2010 has threatened the very function of local government, particularly in England. Local government spending has been reduced by 37% and has resulted in a significant reduction in public service provision (Crewe, 2016). At the same time, local governments have very little tax raising powers to increase revenues and are legally required to set and maintain a balanced budget. Whilst government cuts have affected all parts of the UK, these were far less severe in the devolved nations.

The UK is home to three legal systems of which Irish and English law are rooted in the common law tradition and Scots law is rooted in the civil law tradition of continental Europe; each have their own court system. The Government of Wales Act 2006 also established Welsh law, though England and Wales are still regarded as a unified legal system. The highest court is the Supreme Court which was only established in 2005 and operational in 2009, replacing the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. Despite an increase in importance that went along with this change, the Supreme Court’s powers are still limited as it is not a constitutional court and parliamentary sovereignty means that it cannot overturn primary legislation (Hanretty, 2020). It is the final court of appeal for civil cases across the UK and criminal cases in England and Wales. Below the Supreme Court a complex structure of courts has evolved over centuries and differs between each legal system, usually divided into civil and criminal law as well as specialist law.

The discretionary nature of the UK planning systems in which each planning application is determined on its own merits in light of planning policies means that the court system plays a subordinate role (Wood et al., 2011). Where a planning permission has been refused or conditions have been imposed, the applicant of a planning permission may appeal to the Secretary of State. Most of these appeals are decided by a planning inspector on behalf of the Secretary of State, though in very important cases decisions are taken at ministerial level, taking the inspector’s report into account. A row over a planning application in the London borough of Tower Hamlets which was approved by the Secretary of State against the recommendation of the planning inspector and later quashed in court shows the possibility of political bias (The Guardian, 2020). The decision can be challenged in the High Court, but only where an inspector made an error in law, i.e. a procedural error that affected the outcome of the planning decision. There are no third-party rights of appeal, though it is possible to request a judicial review by the High Court which establishes the lawfulness of a planning decision.

Spatial planning system

The UK Planning System

The post-war history of planning in the UK hinges on the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which replaced a patchwork system of development plans for new housing areas with today’s ‘discretionary’ system. The 1947 Act effectively nationalised the right to develop land, giving Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) discretion to approve or deny what is termed ‘planning permission’ in the UK planning lexicon for proposals based on an indicative plan together with national and local policy, plus other considerations as supported by case law. These restrictive powers must be viewed in the context of the New Towns Act 1946, which allowed government to establish New Town Development Corporations to assemble land (until 1961 at current use value) and develop new urban settlements. Indeed, it is argued that the negative planning powers created in the 1947 Act were predicated on the positive planning powers designed in the 1946 Act (Hall and Tewdwr-Jones, 2011). Development control in the UK has not fundamentally changed since World War II, with incremental adjustments since made to consultation (1968), the nature and role of the local development plan (1968, 1990, 2004, 2011) and an oscillating policy on land value capture throughout. The major change to planning since World War II concerns the decline of the positive function of planning following the winding up of the New Town Development Corporations from 1979.

Since 1999, when devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were established and given responsibility for planning, there has been no UK planning system. Rather, there have been four different planning systems. Three of these are overseen by the devolved governments (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The other (England), according to the UK’s asymmetrical division of powers, is overseen by the UK parliament, giving politicians representing areas within Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the opportunity to contribute to policy affecting only England. As such, each planning system within the UK has its own national planning policy and hierarchy of plans. Fundamentally, the relationship between land use plans and property development works in the same way across the UK – each system having the same origins – but different policy emphases and contrasting attitudes to strategic planning, in particular, prevail.

Planning Frameworks across the UK

Each constituent territory of the UK to which planning is a devolved competency has its own national planning policy and associated documents. In every case there exists national policy that is not in itself legally binding, but which interprets legislation for application by local authorities, and a development plan is produced by local authorities indicating spatial and other preferences and expectations of the local area. Excepting these commonalities, broad differences in approach are taken.


In England, land use planning currently sits alongside housing and local government within the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Four legislative acts underpin the operation of the planning system there: The Town and Country Planning Act 1990; The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004; The Planning Act 2008; and The Localism Act 2011. Planning and its governance in England have long been characterised by a dynamic process of change, with approaches to strategic planning and the governance of regions and sub-regions, in particular, subject to continuous and at times radical reform (Lord and Tewdwr-Jones, 2014). No national or regional strategic planning is presently undertaken in England, though a National Infrastructure Delivery Plan establishes central government planning and delivery of transport, energy, communications, flood defence, water and waste, scientific research, and public investment in housing with reference to National Infrastructure Statements issued by government departments with responsibility for energy, transport and the environment. This plan is limited in its spatial content, preferring written references to places, to maps and indicative diagrams.

Land use planning is entirely the province of national and local government, with national policy setting out what must be taken account of in local development plans, as well as indicating how national policy must be applied in these. National planning policy for England is contained within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced with some controversy in 2012 and revised in 2019 as a means to simplify plan making and development control (Davoudi, 2011), with additional direction given in Planning Practice Guidance and Technical Guidance to the NPPF. There is no intention to revise the NPPF at standard intervals. The NPPF places a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ at the centre of the English planning system. This means that, except in defined protected areas and in cases where the negative impacts outweigh the benefits of development as interpreted in the round and according to the NPPF, plans and policies must provide for development according to assessed need. Where there is no plan in place or where the plan cannot demonstrate that it has allocated sufficient land to meet the assessed housing need for the following five-year period using the nationally determined ‘standard method’ for the calculation of housing need, planning permission is granted.

There is no strategic planning tier in England and, outside of London, strategic planning is optional, though the NPPF stipulates that local authorities have a ‘duty to cooperate’ with neighbouring authorities in land use planning and can achieve strategic aims through the inclusion of policies addressing matters concerning other local authority areas within local plans. Greater London has functioned as a strategic planning tier since 1999 while, since 2011, eight Combined Authorities at city regional scale have formed, all but one with an elected mayor. While powers and funding differ for each according to separate agreements with central government, all have strategic planning and transport powers. Since 2018 there have been two possible routes to the production of a statutory strategic plan. Greater London and the Combined Authorities, where these have an elected mayor, may produce Spatial Development Strategies, which contain policies on land use and spatial development alongside a key diagram. To date the only adopted Spatial Development Strategy is the London Plan, which predates recent changes to legislation allowing Combined Authorities to produce strategic plans. Outside of the Combined Authorities, groups of neighbouring authorities may produce a Joint Strategic Plan under the 2004 Act, though as yet none have been adopted. Perhaps significantly, those attempts at producing a Spatial Development Plan (Greater Manchester) and a Joint Strategic Plan (West of England) that have come closest to fruition have floundered due to disagreements between constituent local authorities regarding incursion into green belt land in Greater Manchester and overall housing numbers and their distribution in the West of England.

The planning frameworks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland differ from that in England in two respects. First, while development plans must follow national planning policy in each, the absence of an up-to-date local plan does not mean that development control decisions are taken only based on national policy. Second, in addition to a document setting out national planning policy, each devolved territory also has a national strategic plan setting out with spatial ramifications how policy is to be realised. As much as national planning guidance has long been issued in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, only upon devolution did planning in the devolved territories begin to formally diverge from that in England.


Planning in Scotland is under the control of the Local Government and Communities Directorate of the Scottish Government. Two legislative acts underpin planning in Scotland: The Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006 and Historic Environment (Scotland) Act 2014. The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, not yet in force, will alter the picture somewhat, primarily by incorporating Scottish Planning Policy within the National Planning Framework (see below), thereby combining spatial and thematic policy. Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) is a statement of the Scottish Government’s aims and priorities with regard to land use. Two overarching policies on sustainability and placemaking frame SPP. Sustainability is heavily couched within an agenda of growth and development that gives weight to economic gains alongside environmental benefit. Placemaking is a policy aim that has been increasingly incorporated within planning policy in Scotland since the devolution of planning powers to the Scottish government in 1999, albeit place quality in new developments is still seen as being substandard (White et al., 2020). Alongside SPP at the national tier is the National Planning Framework, which functions as a national spatial strategy, expressing the Scottish government’s economic aims in spatial form and locating major infrastructure needs and developments. The NPF does not, however, include a key diagram or map showing intentions for future change. Development plans must take into account SPP, the NPF and three additional documents: the policy statements Creating Places (Scottish Government, 2013) and Designing Streets (Scottish Government, 2010), plus the Planning Circulars (Scottish Government, 2021) which set out how legislation should be implemented in plans and procedures. Between the national and the local, Scotland has four Strategic Development Plan Areas covering the largest city regions of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, while the rest of the national territory has no strategic planning. Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) set out a vision and a spatial strategy for their area, conveying in concise fashion issues and developments at the city regional scale and guiding the production of local development plans. SDPs are due to be replaced in late 2021 by Regional Spatial Strategies produced for the whole of Scotland.


In Wales, planning is the responsibility of the Welsh government’s Department of the Economy, Skills and Natural Resources. Welsh planning is legislated for in The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and The Planning (Wales) Act 2015. While the former two Acts were established in UK law, the Welsh government has the power to issue secondary legislation stemming from these within Wales. Planning in Wales is comprised of Planning Policy for Wales (PPW), the Wales Spatial Plan (WSP), and Technical Advice Notes offering detailed guidance. PPW establishes the national context for planning in Wales and determines the broad content of development plans. The WSP, due to be superseded in early 2021 by a National Development Framework, uses a key diagram to spatially articulate national policy and must be heeded by development plans. Regional planning in Wales has been limited in scope, with much discussion over how the national space might be split into regions. This may be due to change, since The Planning (Wales) Act 2015 gave the Welsh government powers to identify Strategic Planning Areas while the draft National Development Framework identifies three regions and sets out discrete development strategies for each.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, responsibility for planning sits with the Department for Infrastructure and is legislated for in The Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, alongside the Strategic Planning (Northern Ireland) Order. Strategic Planning Policy Statements (SPPS) are the Northern Irish government’s means of setting overarching planning principles to be taken account of in development plans. The Regional Development Strategy 2035 is a spatial development framework similar in approach to the WSP in its drawing on the European Spatial Development Perspective’s visual metaphors in its articulation of territorial space. Northern Ireland is unusual in its only recently having decentralised responsibility for development plan preparation to local authorities, this having previously been undertaken by the divisional offices of the relevant government department.

Local Land Use Planning

The key document in the planning systems operative across the UK is the local development plan (termed the Local Plan in England, the Local Development Plan in Scotland and Wales, and the Development Plan in Northern Ireland) prepared by the Local Planning Authority (LPA), while the key decision-making capacity in development control also rests with the LPA. Unusual and almost unique to the UK, there is a separation of the development plan from development control. This stems from the fact that the local development plan is not a legally binding document that uses maps and legends to establish land uses and scope for development. Rather, it is a list of policies with written descriptions as to how and where they are effective, together with an associated indicative map and legend showing the LPA’s intended pattern of land use change and scope for development. Plan preparation varies across the UK’s four planning systems but follows broadly the same procedures, with LPAs being required to review and/or replace local plans every four to five years in all nations and plan-making systems. Public and other stakeholder representations can be made at three stages: once notification that plan preparation is due to commence; when a draft plan is consulted on; and when the plan undergoes independent examination. Local Plans are subject to a Sustainability Appraisal, which encompasses the Strategic Environmental Assessment while also accounting for social and economic understandings of sustainability. In England and Scotland there is now a requirement for local plans to contain a sufficient quantity of allocated land to meet the need for housing arising over the subsequent five-year period within the plan area. This, in the context of a largely passive and regulatory mode of planning – as opposed to a more interventionist form – has been criticised in the English case as the reduction of land use planning to a ‘numbers game’ (Bradley, 2021).

The system of development control that operates across the UK is not a matter of conformance with the plan but with what are termed ‘material considerations’, alongside the discretion of the planning officer. Planning decisions must be made in accordance with the ‘development plan’, which comprises the suite of statutory plans produced at all scales, unless ‘material considerations’ determine otherwise. ‘Material considerations’ include any matters that must be considered in development control decision-making, which range from government policy in non-planning areas to a proposed development potentially reducing the level of natural light for neighbouring developments. The concept of ‘planning permission’ is key in UK planning, as permission must be individually granted for almost every form of development and signals the moment when development rights are conferred. The primacy of the local development plan has been reinforced since the insertion of a reference to a ‘plan-led’ system in the 1990 Act. UK planning systems are, however, plan-led only relative to a past in which plans were not always published and when published plans were not always adequately heeded in development control decisions (Cullingworth et al, 2015). Urban change in the UK is therefore arguably led more by development proposals than by plans, which is to say that it is a ‘performative’, rather than a ‘conformative’ planning system (Janin Rivolin, 2008). In some instances, usually for larger or otherwise contentious proposals, the elected members of the local authority decide to review a decision over the heads of planning officers, while decisions that have an effect on the wider region or nation may be ‘called in’ to be made by central government.

Owing to the discretionary nature of development control, the responsiveness of the LPA to development proposals is a crucial matter and, for more complex proposals such as large housing schemes, much negotiation between the developer and LPA takes place. Timeframes vary widely according to scheme complexity but in England are between eight and 16 weeks, though negotiations, extensions and appeals can further delay decision-making. Consultation must take place not only on plan preparation but also on development proposals, with public consultation undertaken alongside consultation with statutory consultees such as environmental bodies and infrastructure providers. Public consultation in England is by public advertisement and direct notification of neighbours, though requirements differ across the UK, with applicants being responsible for neighbour notification in Scotland (Cullingworth et al., 2015). Written objections are expected to be received by English LPAs within 21 days, while decisions taken by a committee of local elected politicians are undertaken in public.

Some forms of development are excluded from the development control process by virtue of effectively being granted planning permission ex ante, on the basis that the development proposal accords with a specified set of rules. This includes various changes of use within specified categories according to the Use Classes Order, alongside a broader category of changes of use and lower order physical development such as the construction of agricultural buildings under the General Permitted Development Order (GDPO). Since 2013 in England Permitted Development Rights under the GPDO have broadened in scope to enable the conversion of office, retail, light industrial, storage, agricultural and associated sui generis uses into residential use. This change has been controversial, and the quality of housing produced following this process has been found to be questionable (Ferm et al., 2021).

There are further means of circumventing the development control process that more closely resemble the right to develop conferred by the publication of a legally binding land use plan as occurs under zonal planning systems. Simplified Planning Zones (SPZs) enable LPAs to ‘zone’ parts of their plan area such that proposals that meet SPZ requirements (which might be development of a specified land use or at a specified building height for example) are granted permission by right. SPZs are a part of planning policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but have been superseded in England by Local Development Orders (LDOs), which may be issued by LPAs to cover certain parts of their plan area or certain sorts of development across their plan area. SPZs have been little used across the UK (Cullingworth et al., 2015), though the number of adopted LDOs in England has steadily increased following their promotion alongside wider government efforts to liberalise land use and development since 2010. While LDOs (as with SPZs more generally) have typically been used to encourage commercial development, they are increasingly being used in the case of residential development, with one recent example in Cherwell, Oxfordshire, using an LDO in combination with a design guide to simplify the development of self-build housing on a local authority owned and master-planned site (PAS, 2018).

A recent innovation in English planning is the introduction of ‘neighbourhood planning’. The Localism Act 2011 enabled a town or parish council (these being historical entities predating the local authority and which have comparatively limited powers and duties) or, where neither exists, a ‘neighbourhood forum’ of local residents and/or workers which must be validated by the LPA to produce a Neighbourhood Development Plan which may become a part of the local development plan. Crucially, the neighbourhood plan cannot plan for less development than is already allocated in the extant local plan. The neighbourhood plan must be approved in a local referendum, must gain approval by the LPA, and must additionally pass independent examination for it to become active as a part of the local plan (Sturzaker and Shaw, 2015).

Practical Example of the Planning Process

Please see the appendices.

Spatial Planning Challenges

The major issue facing planning and development in the UK is the concentration of economic and population growth in the southeast of England. While this is problematic in its effects on territorial cohesion (ironically having arguably manifested itself most powerfully in the 2016 EU membership referendum result) it is most evident within planning policy debate via a focus on increasing the rate of housebuilding. Inevitably this has been most prominent in English planning. Although increasing attention has been paid to the role of the public sector in land development through the actions of Homes England, a non-departmental government body active in land assembly and development, the main focus has been on planning reforms aimed at giving LPAs cause to grant more planning permissions. This has been an increasing focus within UK planning since the mid-2000s and has generated substantial controversy since then with respect to the effects of new housebuilding on congestion and impact on land consumption, though LPAs are bound to encourage the re-use of previously developed land and to take into account economic and other benefits of agricultural land.

Since the early 2000s a number of non-statutory spatial frameworks based around ‘soft spaces’ have come into being. The soft space identified by Allmendinger and Haughton (2009) in their formulation of the concept was the Thames Gateway, a central government-led initiative to foster growth east of London that transcended administrative boundaries and standard governance arrangements. The Oxford-Cambridge Arc represents a more recent example of a central government sponsored spatial development strategy that does not fit within administrative boundaries. Other examples of soft spaces are based on sub-regional initiatives to coordinate planning that have, by dint of their non-statutory status, survived the abolition of regional planning. In these cases, attempts to coordinate planning for housing across local authority boundaries has at times been at odds with local authority strategies.

Important stakeholders

Institution/stakeholder/authorities Special interest/competences/administrative area
Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (Scotland) The DPEA handles planning appeals on behalf of the Scottish ministers
Environment Agency (England) The EA is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, which is responsible for the protection and enhancement of the environment
Homes England Homes England is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, delivering affordable housing.
Local Government and Communities Directorate (Scotland) The Planning and Architecture Division within the Communities and Local Government Directorate operates Scotland’s planning system and is responsible for the development and implementation of national policy on planning, architecture and place.
Local Government Association (England and Wales) The LGA is the national voice of local government, working with councils to support, promote and improve local government.
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)
Planning Appeals Commission (Northern Ireland) The PAC is an independent body which deals with a wide range of land use planning issues and related matters.
Planning Inspectorate (England and Wales) The Planning Inspectorate deals with planning appeals, national infrastructure planning applications, examinations of local plans and other planning-related and specialist casework in England and Wales.
Royal Town Planning Institute The RTPI is a membership organisation and a chartered institute responsible for maintaining professional standards and accrediting planning courses.
Scottish Environmental Protection Agency SEPA is an executive non-departmental public body of the Scottish government responsible for protecting and improving the environment.
Town and Country Planning Association The TCPA campaigns for the reform of the UK’s planning systems to make them more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and to promote sustainable development.

Fact sheets


List of references

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Scottish Government (2021): Planning Circulars: Index. Available at: https://www.gov.scot/collections/planning-circulars/ (Accessed 18 May 2021).                                                                                

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