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An Introduction to Master Planning



An Introduction to Master Planning


What is the purpose of a master plan?

A master plan should take the best of the environment it will be integrated into and enhance, support and resolve the challenges that currently exist there. The master plan can be as small or as large in scale as it needs to be in order to address the particular issues at play and can apply to both rural and urban settings.

The main types of master plan are:

  •   Development led – focussing on the creation of new commercial/ residential spaces
  •   Landscape led – providing improved biodiversity/ habitat, creating new parkland and open spaces (for example by repairing and restoring former open-cast mining areas)
  •   Socially led – creating entirely new settlements through urban regeneration that targets areas experiencing deprivation.  Examples include Stratford in East London, and Poundbury in Dorset,

What are the principles of master planning?

A master plan must be sensitive to the defining characteristics or setting of the area that it will sit within, delivering a viable solution to an identified need (such as housing requirement or employment need, for example). Scale, proportion, materials, spatial relationships, the need to respect existing building patterns (known as the urban grain), and environmental enhancements are all key to the success of an appropriate masterplan solution, along with sustainability, actively reducing pollution and generating landscape enhancements.

From the macro to the micro a master plan must make sense of the varying scales it creates. From public streets and squares to lanes and private courtyards this is crucial, right down to the choice of materials and the texture and patterns they create. Density is determined by the existing urban grain.  In the countryside this will be much less-dense; in urban areas, more so.  Historically, master plans typically planned 30 dwellings per hectare, whereas this is no longer the case. Rather, it is instead critical to understand the landscape context and ensure the proposal is appropriate for its context. 

A master plan should be viable, creating or supporting employment opportunities and home ownership, providing shops to support the community, and other facilities such as schools, health facilities, playgrounds / play areas, meeting spaces, religious structures and any other support that a community needs.

Public transport, cycling, pedestrian use and car integration all contribute to a successful masterplan when handled correctly. Either by designing out conflicts or enhancing visibility, the integration of movement into a spatial context requires careful consideration. Integration of new routes into the existing transport system and ensuring continued legibility of the system that is already in place is also vital to a master plan’s success.

Above all, a master plan must deliver a sense of place. It should have an identity – in effect a character that enhances the setting of the area that existed previously. Signage should not be required to direct: the master plan should be clearly legible on the ground. Navigation and understanding of location should therefore come naturally, giving that sense of place.

Why is master planning important?

Master planning is important because it creates a coherent route map to delivering a final goal; to placemaking. Balancing multiple factors through phased delivery whilst creatively producing an environment that satisfies the brief and delivers on viability is the essence of a good master plan. It is inevitable that there will need to be compromises in order to ensure all aspects of the brief can be addressed, however keeping these to a minimum and within the agreed terms of all stakeholder parties is the duty of the master planning team heading up the process.

Establishing the needs behind a masterplan solution in the earliest part of the process is important. This forms the bedrock of the brief which needs continually checking during the development stages to ensure it is fit for purpose.  Full stakeholder engagement is required to ensure that the briefing document meets the requirements of all involved.

What makes a good master plan?

A good master plan will ensure integration and enhancement of the key elements of a scheme and will bring benefits to the existing setting.  It can also promote spatial interconnectivity between dislocated settlements as well as alleviate existing problems such as existing poor transport network through a settlement (where a main road might carve a village in two, for example).

It will result in improved local biodiversity and will enhance the existing environment whilst also reducing pollution and promoting sustainability, for example by promoting safe cycle and pedestrian routes, or perhaps by delivering a new pumping station to improve a poorly functioning existing sewage network, for example.

Where a master plan is unsuccessful there will be clear clashes between stakeholders and visible disbenefits that can be observed through poorly integrated transport systems, housing types and employment uses.  In a worst-case scenario this can lead to newly developed areas being annexed and ghettoes being formed.

Viability ensures the ongoing sustainability of the master plan.  For the overall master plan to reach fruition it has to create and realise the funds that are needed in order for it to be built, and then has to self-sustain.  Plenty of master plans don’t work in practice because this isn’t adequately considered from the outset, or because the local authority has not taken into account the need to phase works to generate income.

How is a master plan made?

The constituent parts of a master planning process read rather like a recipe – with key ingredients and a method.  Specialists from identified disciplines will need to be brought together to work through a defined methodology in order to develop a master plan up to the local authority planning submission stage. Every member of the team is critical to the success of the whole project. 

The team will typically include the following specialist disciplines:

  •   Architect / Master planner (often the project lead)
  •   Landscape Architect / Master planner
  •   Planning Consultant
  •   Historical advisor
  •   Carbon assessor / eco advisor
  •   Biodiversity consultant
  •   Arboricultural consultant
  •   Highways and civil engineering advisors
  •   Quantity surveyor / cost advisor
  •   Services consultant (regarding drainage / water /gas / electricity)

Other specialists that might also sometimes get involved include:

  •   Geophysical / mining consultant – to resolve and cap mines that haven’t been dealt with appropriately in the past, for example.
  •   Geological specialist – to understand and advise on subsurface challenges
  •   Air, sound, and light pollution consultants

What is the process of master planning up to planning application submission

Once a team has been brought together under the project lead, they will work together through the following stages.

Firstly, understanding the requirements of the scheme by:

  •   Establishing the requirements driving the need for the master plan, and the land that is available for it.
  •   Undertaking a thorough, holistic review of all the constraints from an Environmental (inclusive of historical, biodiversity, air quality, pollution, carbon impacts), Social and Economic perspective.
  •   Engaging collaboratively with all the parties that a proposal will affect – parish council, neighbours, schools, planners, highways consultants, services consultants, the local authority, and funders to understand the constraints and opportunities that are available.

The brief will then be defined through:

  •   The formal preparation of a project brief which holistically considers all the previously ascertained constraints and opportunities whilst establishing a viable financial balance in order to ensure deliverability. This is one of the most critical stages of the process and requires collaborative engagement with all the stakeholders to agree that the brief is supported.
  •   Really defining the brief.  Meaning that all stakeholders needs are incorporated into this to secure buy-in.  If there are parties involved in the master plan and who could object to the scheme at a planning stage as material consultees (if their needs have not been adequately incorporated), there is no point progressing any further.

The next stage will be to develop early design proposals. This involves:

  •   Preparing a schedule of deliverables that satisfy the brief. It is possible that the brief has already captured the specific mix of deliverables as part of its development during the process of collaborative engagement, but if it hasn’t this is the time to start scheduling these items such as property types, biodiversity response, community support etc.
  •   Exploring options for delivering the brief and creating several draft plans which stay within the brief but explores variance within the structure of the constraints.
  •   Presentation of the plan options to all stakeholders, highlighting the impacts and improvements each option offers. A response would be required from each stakeholder to understand preferences and concerns that can then be considered in the development of the proposals.
  •   Ensuring compliance with local and national planning policy.  This is absolutely essential and any deviation from policy should be highlighted with the local authority to understand if the departure would be acceptable.
  •   Understanding the risks involved with each option that is produced, from a financial, planning, serviceability, and viability point of view. These risks need to be reported back to the client / funders so that they have a full understanding of the position and the potential risks involved with each option.

At this point it should be possible to bring together a preferred option that:

  • Combines the preferred aspects of the master plan options with acceptable associated risk factors into an option that can be tested with through the local authority’s pre-planning process (this can include written reports or in some cases workshops). The documentation should clearly establish the constraints and benefits of the proposal, possibly in the form of a matrix, with written records of the consultations already undertaken and a design development statement showing how the master plan option has developed.

It will then be necessary to take on board the pre-application advice received from the local authority:

  •   Any commentary that needs to be adopted into the masterplan following the pre application stage needs to be carefully checked by all of the design team and stakeholders to ensure that the brief is still met. Should there be any conflicts then a suitable compromise should be reached by all parties.
  •   A check on viability needs to be undertaken at this stage to ensure that delivery is possible.

A final master plan proposal can then be developed in readiness for a formal planning submission and must balance all of the above factors and be developed in enough detail to allow for either an outline (with reserved matters to follow) or detailed planning application to be submitted, with full supporting documentation. Sensitive areas that are close to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), close to listed buildings or that are in a conservation area are more likely to require a detailed planning application. The final proposal should meet the brief, provide an uplift in environmental considerations, be truly viable and positively contribute overall to the setting and community needs.

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