From discretion to selective regulation – the case of English land use planning


  • Andreas Schulze Baing The University of Manchester


planning reform, Land Use Planning, regulation, discretion, England




While the statutory planning system in many countries is regulatory, using zoning tools or other types of regulation, the system in England has historically been using a discretionary approach, using case-by-case planning applications/permissions (Booth, 1995). This had influence on planning reforms in many other countries, be it the influence of discretion and development-oriented planning in Dutch planning (Janssen-Jansen and Woltjer, 2010) or the introduction of the Urban Development Contract in the German system in the 1990s.

The recent years have seen though a growing political debate in England about the merits of introducing more regulatory certainty into the English planning system (Schulze Bäing and Webb, 2020).  The three broad zones for growth, renewal and protection, proposed in a government white paper in 2020 would have been a game changer for statutory land use planning in England, and would have radically changed the existing system of development management (MHCLG, 2020). This proposal met with a range of criticism following its publication (Inch and Tait, 2020), and it seems that for the time being these reform plans have been shelved, and the forces of path dependency ensure the existing system largely continues.

While it remains to be seen if some of the reform elements of the white paper will reappear, this proposed paper discusses the extent to which some regulatory elements have already been introduced over recent decades into the discretionary English system. The paper explores how these are used in practice, using Greater Manchester as a case study.

The paper starts by providing an overview of these tools, namely:

  • Site-specific policies in local plans,
  • Neighbourhood plans,
  • Strategic Regeneration Frameworks,
  • Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessments,
  • Permission in principle in brownfield registers.

Strictly speaking, only the permission in principle is a regulatory tool, but arguably also the other tools provide more certainty. The paper assesses the extent to which these tools are used in the districts of Greater Manchester, to then discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this approach compared to more comprehensive traditional zoning tools. One concern is that these tools tend to favour providing certainty for certain land uses, in particular housing, perhaps providing less opportunity for other land uses to be considered in the planning and decision-making process. Another concern is that some of these tools might not offer the same amount of political engagement that would be applied to a regulatory zoning tool.


BOOTH, P. 1995. Zoning or Discretionary Action: Certainty and Responsiveness in Implementing Planning Policy. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 14, 103-112.

INCH, A. & TAIT, M. 2020. THE WRONG ANSWERS TO THE WRONG QUESTIONS - Countering the misconceptions driving the Government’s planning reform agenda. Available:

JANSSEN-JANSEN, L. B. & WOLTJER, J. 2010. British discretion in Dutch planning: Establishing a comparative perspective for regional planning and local development in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Land Use Policy, 27, 906-916.

MHCLG. 2020. White Paper: Planning for the Future. Available:

SCHULZE BÄING, A. & WEBB, B. 2020. Planning Through Zoning. Available: [Accessed 31/01/2024].