Planning for the Future

The Government has unveiled proposals to deliver new housing by overhauling England’s planning system.

The reforms proposed in the ‘Planning for the future’ consultation include overhauling the planning process, agreeing local housing plans in 30 months and requiring every area to have a local plan in place.

A new Infrastructure Levy system would replace the system of developer contributions with the aim of delivering more affordable housing, a fast-track system for ‘beautiful buildings’ would be created and all new homes would be ‘zero carbon ready’.

The consultation explores the accessibility of the planning system, with the aim of ensuring the planning process engages local communities at an earlier stage.

Under the plans, land will be designated into one of three categories – for growth, for renewal or for protection. Local plans would set rules, rather than policies for general development. Communities will set the agenda for their own areas, with the categories for all land across England decided through local consensus.

There are also proposals which aim to protect green spaces, allow for more building on brownfield land and trees in streets. Decisions on the Green Belt will stay with local authorities as they prepare their plans. Meanwhile, a First Homes scheme will provide newly-built homes at a 30 per cent discount for local people, key workers and first-time buyers. The Local Government Association submitted a response to the First Homes consultation in May, and the Government has now responded to those submissions.

They said in their media response – which has been reported widely – councils are committed to ensuring new homes are built and share the aspiration of improving the current planning system to provide greater certainty for communities, encourage brownfield development, to deliver better infrastructure and increase local involvement. Any new system needs to focus on ensuring planning permissions are built, and provide local control over developments.

“We look forward to engaging with the Government to ensure their aspirations of an improved system work in practice. As we analyse the proposals in detail, and prepare our own submissions on the various consultations (see more below), we encourage councils to share your own views”

Some reactions from ‘the inside’.

We were promised “radical reform”. So does the much-anticipated Planning for the Future white paper deliver on that promise? Well, like the curate’s egg, it is good in parts. It contains some interesting new ideas but at the same time it recycles some old ones.

Probably the biggest innovation is the proposal to split areas into three ‘zones’: ‘Growth’ areas where permission in principle will be granted on identification of a development site in the local plan; ‘Renewal’ areas which will be subject to a statutory ‘presumption in favour of development’ and ‘Protection’ areas where development will be discouraged.

“Many of you will have spotted that not all these ideas are new”

Many of you will have spotted that not all these ideas are new. Permission in principle is a concept already on the statute books (albeit that the provisions are not yet fully in force). Older practitioners will remember previous presumptions in favour of development (Lifting the Burden, anyone?).  There are already areas where development is discouraged – eg, the green belt, AONBs, development affecting the setting of heritage assets, etc. As a number of commentators have pointed out, much of this could have been achieved within the existing system.

So, how would this all work? Well, as so often, the devil will be in the detail.

The identification of the three zones, the white paper tells us, will fall to local planning authorities as part of a completely new local plan process which will be more democratic and involve greater opportunity for public participation. A total of 30 months will be allowed for this process.

I am not the first to point out that speed of process and increased public participation are often uncomfortable bedfellows. The fact that, under the current plan system instigated in 2004, we still do not have full up-to-date plan coverage hardly inspires confidence that the 30 month timescale can be met.

“I am not the first to point out that speed of process and increased public participation are often uncomfortable bedfellows”

As for the granting of planning permission, even where permission in principle has been granted by the zoning of the site in the local plan, consideration will still need to be given to all the material considerations we consider now – residential amenity, environmental impact, etc. A glance at any committee report on a major application will put this in context. ‘Principle of the development’ (which is all permission in principle decides) is typically only one of a dozen or more main issues that need to be considered. 

Plus ca change…    

Nigel Hewitson is a planning lawyer with Gowling WLG

Andrew Martin, senior planner, casts his eye over the proposals in Planning for the Future and finds – among some digital gems – that not all is quite as it is billed

Having reviewed the proposals set out within Planning for the Future, the forthcoming reform is not perhaps what I was anticipating.  In the build-up to publication there was much speculation in the press, possibly fuelled by the content circulated by the Policy Exchange think-tank over recent months, that we were going to be facing a full-blown zonal system commensurate to that in the US and elsewhere.  This has turned out not to be the case.

In essence, the proposals represent a means of transitioning to a hybrid style system, one which comprises simplified elements of the existing system alongside an increase in the use of tools and characteristics often associated with zoning. 

“It is not the wholesale overhaul of the existing planning system that had been widely speculated”

It is not then, in my view, the wholesale overhaul of the existing planning system that had been widely speculated.  However, this does not detract from the scale of the changes and challenges ahead, both logistically and politically.  As a consequence, it remains to be seen whether the reform will actually tackle the key driving issues of delays, uncertainty, and complexity.

Within the white paper there were still, of course, the usual disparaging references to the planning system being a barrier to growth and delivery, implying that responsibility for the ongoing housing crisis largely falls at the feet of planners and of planning departments – a rhetoric which ignores a large number of other factors at play.

Moreover, it was difficult to grapple with the emphasis on better design when the same government has just introduced a range of further potentially harmful permitted development rights. But that aside, there are on the face of it a number of positive proposals that could address some of the current issues faced, if implemented effectively.

The first thing which immediately stood out to me was the ambition to revolutionise the integration of digital technology and data into the planning system. Public consultations, local plans, design codes and planning applications, amongst a long list of other planning matters and processes, are all set to be given a shake-up in terms of their composition, visual presentation and opportunities for interaction.

“Even as a planner it can be disheartening to face large volumes of primarily text-based policies”

Delivering on this promise could have numerous benefits, including wider-reaching community engagement, greater transparency and a far more spatial approach to how we plan for the future. It would also be no bad thing to make local plans more digestible. Even as a planner it can be disheartening to face large volumes of primarily text-based policies, many of which duplicate issues covered by the NPPF, something that the reform similarly seeks to address.

Secondly, it was at long last refreshing to see that the value of planners and of planning departments is being recognised, even despite the initial aforementioned references to planning being a barrier to growth and delivery. Whatever stance you take, hate them or love them, it is fundamental that planning departments are sufficiently resourced going forward or else the reform is destined to fail from the outset.

Proposed transitional funding, alongside increased income generation through planning application fees, in addition to cost savings associated with the abandonment of press advertisements, is all therefore welcome. I would, though, suggest that additional funding could be given to planning departments which abide by statutory targets, rather than financially penalising those who do not. Basically, given the current context of under-staffed and overworked planning departments, the carrot may be a more attractive incentive than the stick.

“Given the current context of under-staffed and overworked planning departments, the carrot may be a more attractive incentive than the stick”

FOSH © 2021

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