The 1947 Act effectively separated land use rights from land ownership rights, and assigned control over the former to the state (acting primarily through local authorities). Most forms of development or substantive changes of land use require explicit planning permission, for which application must be made to the local planning authority. The authority, whilst it is urged to process the application with due speed and diligence, has substantial discretion over whether to grant planning permission and with what conditions or obligations attached (Grant 1992). The planning authority must have regard to the provisions of the development plan (which may or may not have ‘allocated’ the site for housing or whatever the relevant use is) and to other material considerations, which will certainly include the policies contained in any planning documents and the policies set out by central government in the National Planning Guidance. Landowners/developers may appeal against refusal of planning permission, and in that case a quasi-independent planning inspectorate (reporters in Scotland) will assess the case against the aforementioned criteria, again applying judgement (and with an eye on precedent).
Such a system is clearly quite distinct from a pure zoning system, where the landowner has an effective right to develop in accordance with the zoning—however, it is less clearly distinct from a system where ‘rezoning’ is common, and more discretionary (Cullingworth 1997). There is significant indeterminacy in the system, with room for negotiation and ‘gaming’ the system, but also much scope for delay and frustration. It may be termed a ‘merit-based’ system, where development proposals increase their chances of approval by ticking boxes in terms of plan and policy conformity, including a range of ‘sustainability’ criteria (DCLG 2013). It is also supposed to be a ‘plan-based’ system, whereby most if not all authorities maintain their local plans (local development frameworks) in an up-to-date fashion and in conformity with national policy guidance. However, repeatedly since the 1980s the system has failed to deliver up-to-date approved local plans in many areas (Baker Associates 2008), partly owing to the cumbersome procedural stages involved in order to give plans the ‘legitimacy’ conferred by extensive public consultation, and partly to the serious and worsening shortage of professional resources in local planning departments. Formal plans can also be overtaken by ad hoc opportunist decisions, typically motivated by claims about the promotion of economic growth, sometimes termed ‘project planning’ (Healey 1997; Bramley and Kirk 2005). Over time, central government has become more prescriptive in its policy guidance, culminating in the National Planning Framework (DCLG 2013) and its equivalent in Scotland (Scottish Planning Policy). Thus, overall we would characterise the system as procedurally one characterised by local discretion but substantially policy-based. In an international comparative review, Oxley et al. (2009) highlighted the considerable scope for negotiation late in the process, which allowed more flexibility but at a cost of greater uncertainty. They also pointed to the lack of capacity in England for proactive policy-driven land assembly and supply, in contrast to several countries with a more successful record (the Netherlands, Germany and France).