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Planning with a social conscience

How is the Public Sector Equality Duty impacting planning policy? What is ‘inclusive design’? Bob Pritchard explains.

The fundamental purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. This involves balancing three interdependent objectives: economic, social and environmental.

While the role of planning in promoting economic growth and protecting and enhancing the environment is comparatively well established and understood, in recent years the social objective and the need to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities has increasingly come to the fore. A tangible manifestation of this is the impact that the public sector equality duty (PSED) has had both on planning policy making and decision taking. The PSED is set out in s149 of the Equalities Act 2010 and provides that, when exercising its functions, a public authority must:

  • Have ‘due regard’ to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act
  • Advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it
  • Foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it

The relevant protected characteristics include age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex and sexual orientation.

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Case law

There is now a burgeoning body of case law which evidences the impact that the PSED has had on planning. The case of R (on the application of Danning) v Sedgemoor District Council [2021] EWHC 1649 (Admin) confirms that application of the PSED is not simply a question of ticking the box marked ‘equality implications,’ it must be undertaken in substance and not merely in form.

Regeneration projects offer particular challenges when it comes to ensuring that those with protected characteristics are not unduly disadvantaged. For example, in R. (Buckley) v Bath and North East Somerset Council [2018] EWHC 1551 (Admin), planning permission had been granted to a registered social housing provider for the redevelopment of a housing estate resulting in the net loss of 204 affordable houses. A long-term resident of the estate sought judicial review of the decision. In the High Court, Lewis J decided that the council had failed to comply with the PSED by not paying due regard to the impact of the demolition of existing homes and adapted dwellings on elderly and disabled residents.

It is important therefore that the social objective is given appropriate weighting when planning for ‘levelling up.’ For example, while investment in transport necessarily features in plans to bring regional public transport connectivity “significantly closer to the standards of London”, any benefits should be achieved without exacerbating health inequalities and any differential impacts on those with a protective characteristic should also be properly considered.

Inclusive design

Finally, it is worth mentioning inclusive design – the notion that places should be planned to reflect the diversity of people who use them and should not impose barriers of any kind – is becoming hard-wired into planning practice and policy.

A common thread running through these examples is the need for developers, policy makers and decision takers to come to a proper understanding of the social impacts of what is being proposed.

This can only be gained through meaningful consultation and engagement with those who will be affected.

Bob Pritchard is a Legal Director at Shoosmiths.

This article follows Shoosmiths publishing the latest instalment of its Investing in tomorrow report: ESG – challenges and opportunities.

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