How the UK’s planning system is holding back the future

From the climate crisis to the cost of living crisis to the housing crisis, we need fast and radical change in how our society operates, and this cannot be achieved without serious infrastructure investment. 

But across the board, the UK’s archaic planning system seems to offer the opposite of what is needed. Where we need green energy we see the needless barriers out of step with public opinion. Where we need a shift to public transport and active travel, we see road building and airport expansion. Where, as shall be argued later, we need a revitalised public space, we see increasing privatisation and commercialisation via outdoor advertising. 

Onshore wind

An obvious example of planning failure is the effective moratorium on onshore wind energy generation which, since a 2015 decision by David Cameron, has seen new developments restricted to land specifically allocated for onshore wind in existing local development plans. 

But the potential of onshore wind is huge, particularly in the UK. Wind generated a quarter of the UK’s total energy in 2022, with onshore responsible for 44 percent of that, a 21 percent increase on 2021. The UK’s net zero strategy aims for the nation to be entirely powered by clean energy by 2035, with wind contributing 50 GW of energy capacity, or roughly a doubling of what currently exists. 

The moratorium is out of step with the country’s needs, and also with public opinion. A poll by in 2022 found that 83% of people support onshore wind expansion in general and 76% support expansion in their local area. An attempt to amend the Levelling Up Bill to remove the ban was unfortunately removed before being voted on. But the need to put decisions about local green energy products back in the hands of local people remains strong. 

Airport expansion

Whilst carbon emissions fall in most sectors of the economy, those from transport, and especially aviation, continue to rise. Current planning policy – via the Making Best Use and Jet Zero strategies – favours airport expansion  whilst affording little opportunity for residents to oppose airport expansion where they live. Making Best Use states that emissions should be accounted for “as part of existing local planning application processes”, but the Jet Zero Strategy contradicts this by transferring responsibility for emissions to international schemes like the much criticised CORSIA

Confusing matters further, the National Planning Policy Framework states that “The focus of planning policies and decisions should be on whether proposed development is an acceptable use of land, rather than the control of processes or emissions”. 

The result? Greenhouse gas emissions from aviation and local opinion simply fall through the cracks, as they did in the recent case of Bristol Airport expansion. Local authorities can consider them, but on appeal they vanish from consideration in favour of “acceptable usage of land”. 

Outdoor Advertising 

Outdoor advertising, such as billboards and bus stop advertisements, may not at first seem on a par with the issues above, but nothing quite exemplifies planning failure like it. The most recent regulations on outdoor advertising date from 16 years ago and lag far behind recent developments in the industry, failing entirely to mention digital advertising, now the most popular and fastest growing medium. 

Digital advertising is incredibly energy intensive, with even a small “six-sheet” screen using the equivalent electricity as three UK homes. In the context of both a climate and cost of living crisis, this is a profligate use of energy we really can’t afford. 

Moreover, the impact of outdoor advertising on public space has consequences for us all. As Dr Thomas Dekeyser describes in his recent guest blog for Adfree Cities, each piece of outdoor advertising is a privatisation of public space, enabled by an increasingly complex web of surveillance technologies, whilst incessant messaging to buy and consume affects our sense of self and how we engage with the world, making us more materialistic and less empathetic

Despite the harm outdoor advertising causes, local people’s ability to do anything about it is severely limited. Currently, planning laws allow for giant digital billboards to be erected in residential areas, directly impacting homes without properly consulting or gaining consent from the local community, who also have no right to appeal.

Local campaigners like Adblock Bristol do have success in blocking new screens, and there have been notable examples of councils taking a stand, such as in Edinburgh and Brighton and Hove. Unfortunately, when planning applications for new ad screens are refused, the large ad companies often win on appeal, or else simply wait a year and apply again until opposition dies away and the application is approved. 

What is to be done?

What should be clear from the above is that planning policy in the UK consistently lets communities down by failing to adequately consider climate impacts of development despite obvious and widespread concern about climate change, and by limiting local residents’ ability to oppose or stop developments where they would be harmful. 

Urgent and widespread reform is needed. In the context of the work of Adfree Cities, we are calling for the following: 

  1. At a local level, local authorities can introduce a presumption against all new planning applications for outdoor advertising in their local plan or local development framework, as Lambeth Council did in their 2021 Local Plan. 
  2. National change to flip the appeal system which currently favours the advertising companies, who have the time and the cash to launch expensive appeals against refused planning applications, whereas local communities cannot appeal at all against approved applications. This is an obvious imbalance of power in need of addressing.

The world around us is not a neutral background to our lives. It is a living, breathing force, actively shaping our lives. At a time such as this when change is needed more than ever, we deserve a planning system capable of supporting a better future.

James Ward is a campaigner for Ad Free Cities

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