In England, local planning authorities are at liberty to determine which considerations are material to the decision it takes (Cullingworth, 1999). The majority of developments are subject to the authorisation of the local planning authority, which operates under a plan-led system. Decisions must be decided in accordance with the development plan in question unless there are material considerations that indicate otherwise. A plan-led system requires a comprehensive and up-to-date hierarchy of national policy, regional strategies (now abolished) and development plans, but it is always going to be difficult to maintain a comprehensive policy framework (Cullingworth & Nadin, 2006), especially since the rise of the coalition government.
Therefore, development plans may be considered as material to planning applications and may or may not influence what is built in a particular area. This is usually because development plans are not a complete guide for all planning applications and are often outdated. This causes an intended blurring of the relationship between policy and implementation, which is often viewed as an unusual system to other countries outside of the UK, where decisions are made following the adoption of the plan in question (in Western Europe administrators control development). Critics argue that discretionary-planning causes delays in decision making, whilst supporters explain that it improves the allocation of scarce resources in a sustainable way (Adler and Asquith, 1993), involving communities and allowing the correct type and level of development.
“the rules that denote fixed limits are without question easy to apply and in theory brook no argument. In practice they all too often become the base-line for bargaining and negotiation, which fundamentally weakens their impact. That they are so used arises from the fact that many fixed rules do not accurately reflect the complexity of the urban environment and the goals of the planning system”. Booth (1996)
In 2004, the plan-led system saw a change in its structure, which gave way to Local Development Frameworks (LDF) and Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS), which replaced structure plans and local plans (Reeves and Burley, 2002). The aim was to reduce inflexibility and inefficiency within the planning system. Critics have argued that it has made decision-making more complicated because there are now more types of documents than ever before. Supporters explain that it has allowed communities to have greater participation in planning, specifically through the Statement of Community Involvement (SCI).
With communities in mind, in May 2010 one of the main aims of the new government coalition, in light of the economic downturn, was to return decision making powers on housing and planning to local councils (Planning Resource Magazine, May 2010). This has involved removing the majority of regional planning and creating local enterprise partnerships (Urban Areas website, 2010). This may cause implementation issues, but it is too early to comment on this at present.