Perspectives on Planning in London and the U.S. Suburban Midwest

I recently had the pleasure of visiting London and spending time with three fine planners in the Greater London area: Richard Summers, former RTPI president and principal at Spatial St. Edmunds; Jonathan Manns, director of planning at Colliers International; and Chris Berry, an independent planning consultant working in interim roles with London Boroughs.

We had great discussions over dinner on the Thames and enjoyed a detailed case study of a development project in London at Jon's office in the West End. These talks and a tour of London planning highlights provided me with a broader understanding of the planning structure in London and England as a whole.

I noted some key differences between England's paradigm of local planning and development review and the system in place within my Midwest suburban planning environment.

Andy Cross, AICP (left), in London with Richard Summers, former RTPI president and principal at Spatial St. Edmunds.

Andy Cross, AICP (left), in London with Richard Summers, former RTPI president and principal at Spatial St. Edmunds.

Planning Authority

Cities in England do not have the same local planning authority that American municipalities enjoy.

The national government establishes the local planning authorities in England and provides a framework of policy and guidance within which they operate. The executive actions and professional advice of local planning officers are exercised within the authority of the locally elected councilors of the Local Planning Authority.

"Local plans" in England establish planning goals within their borders and include a series of policies, proposals, and projects within which development proposals are evaluated. These policies, proposals, and projects must comply with the broader National Planning Policy Framework.

Municipalities in the United States have home rule authority and create their local zoning ordinances. The zoning ordinances represent an independent legal framework for city planning and allow cities to craft codes that reflect their local visions for growth and development. Importantly, each municipal government is accountable for its zoning codes. Challenges to local codes can put municipal governments in a position to defend themselves in state or federal courts. Poorly drafted local zoning ordinances or those that have been deemed discriminatory have placed local governments in difficult legal positions.

Stakeholder Expectations

A benefit of local zoning codes in American cities is that they provide immediate guidance to applicants and developers. Shared expectations can be established between residents, local planning authorities, and developers when a community has a zoning ordinance identifying land uses, residential densities, and bulk regulations for properties in the city limits.

The policies, proposals, and projects in English Local Plans are not fast and firm guidelines like U.S. zoning codes. They are more flexible and allow room for interpretation and negotiation to determine the best balance between competing interests for the wider public benefit. Each development application represents an opportunity for the applicants to present their proposal and show how it might meet the requirements of local planning policies.

A professional intermediary may be engaged to help "make the case" to a Local Planning Authority to demonstrate how the proposal meets local planning policies. Pre-application discussions can invite creativity and can achieve positive compromise within the requirements of the Local Plan. Appeals against the refusal of planning permission or the imposition of potentially onerous conditions are determined by an independent Planning Inspectorate.

Within this English framework, local input becomes a part of each application as it is evaluated against local policies. The U.S. municipal structure establishes a set of guidelines within which development can be permitted without a public hearing process, referred to as by-right development. In a sense, public input is provided by the community-approved zoning ordinance.

An ongoing challenge, however, is to improve these written codes and regulations to provide the best possible results. Importantly, public hearing processes and other tools are in place to allow for creative and unique development proposals. These involve a thorough public engagement process to ensure local stakeholder input is part of the discussion.

Summary Thoughts

Both the English and the U.S. systems establish a planning process that allows for creativity in design and provides opportunities for public engagement. "Local Plans" and their policies in England open the way for immediate discussions between applicants and planning authorities to assess development proposals. Established zoning ordinances in the U.S. provide a framework within which applicants may anticipate potential planning support for their proposal with certainty.

Further discussions on this topic might reflect on the scale of local planning within the UK and the U.S. Would a National Planning Policy Framework work in the U.S., bring local home rule authority under a larger federal umbrella? Alternatively, how might towns and cities in England benefit from establishing their firm zoning guidelines?

All good discussion points for another dinner by London City Hall on the Thames.

Top image: Vauxhall Bridge on the River Thames. Pixabay photo in the public domain.

Headshot of Andy Cross, AICP.
About the AuthoR
Andy Cross is a senior planner in Highland Park, Illinois.

October 12, 2016

By Andy Cross, AICP