The Planning System; Is it outdated?

“Planning systems throughout the world share the same characteristics. They are all obsessed with providing certainty and constantly looking to define ways forwards through complex politics. They all have the same problems.”

(Campbell, 2018)


It could be said that the general planning systems in place today are no longer fit for purpose in dealing with the complex challenges that are results of our contemporary society. Whilst we can propose a new way of urbanism and planning, for these to be effective, we must understand the weaknesses in the current system, why they are no longer successful methods of practice and delivery; as well as understanding why they have not been able to adapt to suit the ever changing structure of society.

This article intends to review the weaknesses of these, ‘standardised’ planning systems to give a clear overview and reference point to why we must change the way our systems work.

 In 1996, ‘Remaking Planning,’ (Brindley et al, 1996) discussed the changes made to planning in the UK during the period of Thatcher government. It was considered that this period drastically changed the planning system, resulting in the ‘death’ of the old and the birth of a new simplified, systematic approach (Ambrose, 1986). The new approach saw the ‘relaxation of many controls, the introduction of enterprise zones and simplified planning zones, the transfer of planning powers to urban development corporations…and greater stress on market criteria in development control decisions’ (Brindley et all, 1996). Yet, what was discussed in 1996, post-Thatcher period, was that this ‘death’ was largely exaggerated and that there had been no major reform in the planning system. With Development Plans still playing a significant role in the development of localised areas, most of the changes were ultimately revisions to policy within the existing system or additions to the system, involving both state intervention and public expenditure (Brindley et al, 1996).


Over 20 years later, in 2019, it could be argued that this ‘cover-up’ and ‘revision’ method is still the case. In Scotland, this is clear. “A Guide to the Planning System in Scotland,” although published in 2009, being the most recent and available publication, explains the make-up of the planning system consisting of; Development Plans; Development Management and Enforcement. Local development plans are still central to the system, being renewed every few years by local authorities in order to ‘predict-and-plan’ for the years ahead – justified by looking backwards at piles of evidence from previous plans (Campbell, 2018). Whilst there are new initiatives emerging in Scotland that ‘encourage communities to engage in the planning process,’ (, n.d) development plans written by authorities are still fundamental to the system.


Kelvin Campbell argues that ‘many plans are out of date before their ink is dry,’ explaining that most plans evolve into ‘standard operating procedures’ for places, as one plan copies another, generating a cycle of constant revisions rather than forming new, innovative concepts that are relevant and adoptive to current issues (Campbell, 2018).


Following these 'predict-and-plan’ methods, an array of issues become clear;

  1. Evolution in planning is restricted, preventing the opportunity to learn by adopting new approaches. The system that tries to predetermine where things go and how they are formed denies the prospect of evolution happening naturally, driven by the citizen directly affected by development.

  2. The complexity of planning is contradicted by the use of ‘traditional’ techniques that do not have the flexibility needed to address the consistently evolving complexity of urban change. “Like a user interface on a computer, the planning function sits on top a flawed and outdated operating system.” (Campbell, 2018)

  3. Measuring the performance of our communities through data-evidence (from the results of previous plans and additional studies) such as; housing shortages and crime give a limited view on the possible social problems. “We need to accept that there are intangibles that we cannot measure easily such as a sense of community and degree of social capital, well-being and happiness.” (Campbell, 2018) Given that these are aspects of performance that cannot provide a quantitative measurement, we must seek to provide a system that allows these ‘social’ aspects – ultimately the most important to a ‘happy’ society – to be considered throughout our planning processes.

  4. Outcomes of the system are consistently ‘something we don’t like.’ “Despite all the policies, design guidance, negotiations and responses, we end up with schemes that fail to offer the quality of life we demand for our citizens – places with no soul, places locked in transition, places that lack a sense of belonging.” (Campbell, 2018)

  5. Planning looks for the ‘next best thing,’ yet by the time that these are shaped into policies that conform with the overarching systems, it is often too late and irrelevant to current climates.


From the analysis of these issues, common themes become clear. Our systems are restrictive in allowing appropriate change to happen when it is relevant, preventing the system to continuously evolve with the needs of our ever-changing society. The system is inaccessible to those out-with authoritative positions, meaning the majority view of affected people are not incorporated into any ‘structured’ changes – usually resulting in outcomes that do not reflect the needs of users. With this being said, it is essential that we look to adopt a new approach to our systems, that is both progressive and enabling, being inclusive of all and that is centred around continuous feedback as its core operating principle. This is not to say that development plans should be abolished, as whilst rules and theories are necessary for structuring complex processes, it is essential that we adopt the right ones to allow accessibility to infinite possibilities – that ultimately are a reflection of the needs of our society.


“Rather than being scared of physical planning because of previous failures, we need to invest a new confidence in the process: this time, rooted in a clear understanding of how cities – and societies evolve.”

(Campbell, 2018)


To refer to the title of this article, “The Planning System; Is it Outdated?” the simple answer would be yes - our planning systems are outdated. We must look towards a new approach to planning that is inclusive and adaptable to change with rapid pace of our complex, evolving contemporary world.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives; but the most adaptable change.”

(Charles Darwin)

Scotland: The issues and points raised in this article are being recognised in Scotland. The Scottish Government are currently reforming the planning system, listing 20 proposals that are reflective of the intended changes to the system and how they will be achieved, stating that:

“We believe that the system needs to change to respond to a changing world.”

(, 2019)

The proposals are promising for Scotland as many of them are centred around community involvement and collaborative schemes. However, in order for a high-quality sustainable system to be achieved, Scotland must ensure that a system is developed that allows for continuous feedback and review and is easily and efficiently adaptable to change.

Relevant documentations via the links below:

The Planning (Scotland) Bill

Scottish Planning Reform


Ambrose, P. (1987). Whatever Happened to Planning?. Abingdon: Routledge.

Campbell, K. (2018). Making Massive Small Change. Chelsea Green Publishing, pp.45-55. (n.d.). Planning and architecture: Community involvement in the planning process - [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Apr. 2019]. (2019). Planning and architecture: Reforming the planning system - [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2019].

MacDonald, K. Sanyal, B. Silver, B. Ng, M.K.  Head, P.  Williams, K. Watson, K. & Campbell, H. (2014) Challenging theory: Changing practice: Critical perspectives on the past and potential of professional planning, Planning Theory & Practice, 15:1, 95-122, DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2014.886801

The Scottish Government (2009). A Guide to the Planning System in Scotland. Edinburgh.

Walters D, Brown L. Design First. Amsterdam: Routledge; 2004. Accessed April 20, 2019.

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