In the wee hours of the morning the Government published two consultation documents:
- “Planning for the Future”: read this version if you like lovely pictures and have a screen the size of a bus, and this version for everyone else.
- “Changes to the current planning system”: only one version to read, and no pictures.
So. Where to start? Well, do you have 5 minutes? If so, join me for a few bite-sized headlines on what’s actually being consulted on in “Planning for the Future”. As there’s enough to fill months of blog posts, I’ll stick to 2 biggies – plan-making & development management (we’ll come back another day to infrastructure payments and some mega-exciting ideas about digitising the planning system). And I’ll round it off by mentioning 3 big things which aren’t on offer. At least not yet.
Right. Here goes. Deep breath.
What hasn’t changed? Lots. The fundamental structure of the planning system, for one thing. We still have local planning authorities adopting local plans which guide development in accordance with a National Planning Policy Framework. So far, so familiar.
So what’s new? Also lots, including:
- Local plans won’t need to be “sound” or “deliverable” anymore – which, as you may remember, I think’s a good idea.
- No more “duty to cooperate” – which again, as you may recall, I think’s another good idea. That said, no plan yet for how to deal with cross-boundary strategic issues. More of that in a mo.
- The new statutory test for local plans to meet at sped-up local plan examinations (30 months from 1st consultation to adoption!) = “sustainable development”. Because, we’re told, that term is “well understood” (not by me!, ed.).
- No more sustainability appraisals for plans, but we don’t yet know much about the “quicker, simpler” approach which might replace them. Ditto for EIA of individual planning applications.
- Auf wiedersehen to localism, as the NPPF is to set national development management policies – again, in my book, another good idea given some of the mind-numbing repetition in these sorts of policies we tend to find across the country.
- So what’s left for local plans to do? Well, zoning. Sort of. They’ll have to carve up the country into 3 different areas. What are they? Repeat after me:
- Growth – areas suitable for “substantial development”, a term we’re told will be “defined in policy to remove any debate about this descriptor” – planoraks who have already lived through a round or two of planning reforms might find the idea of “removing debate” about something as important as that a little quaint. Still, local plans will set out what use classes, height and densities get the green light. Adoption of the plan confers outline planning permission for development within those parameters – more on that in a sec.
- Renewal – again, local plans set out the acceptable uses, heights and densities. Then there’s a new statutory presumption in favour of permission for specified uses by, we’re told, emphasising the “plan-led” approach.
- Protect – here we… protect. Green Belt (NB there’s not a scintilla of reform on offer for planning in the Green Belt – more on that below), AONBs, local wildlife sites, open countryside and lots of other things. Including conservation areas. Which may make life difficult in cities like London, where many boroughs are more or less one enormous conservation area.
- Plus we’re on for new design codes – either as part of the local plan, an SPD, or a neighbourhood plan (albeit it doesn’t sound like the Government is quite sure yet how neighbourhood plans fit into this brave new world).
- Finally, we get lots of (I think) brilliant ideas about digitising plan-making, and making them shorter, more web-based and more visual. More on this in a future post.
What hasn’t changed? Lots. We’d still need planning permission for new development, and we’d still (sometimes anyway – see below) get permission through discretionary decisions by local planning authorities on whether to grant it in line with the development plan and other material considerations.
Again, so far so familiar.
What are the routes to permission in this brave new world? Best to take it zone by zone:
- Growth areas: adopting a local plan would confer outline planning permission for the prescribed uses within the set parameters of height and density. Subject to meeting the requirements a masterplan and design codes. To get your full permission, you’ll either need a reserved matters application, a Local Development Order (linked to a masterplan and design codes) or – if it’s a real biggie e.g. a new town – potentially a development consent order (bit more on them here). Very interestingly, it looks like the Government wants to keep these kinds of applications away from the control of planning committees and (somehow) force cases where “the principle of development is established” to be delegated to officers, which may make for some… interesting discussions in town halls.
- Renewal areas: consent can be granted through permission in principle, a full planning application, or a Local / Neighbourhood Development Order (i.e. same as now). But all bolstered by that statutory presumption in favour of permission for specified uses which meet the design code + other prior approval requirements.
- Protect areas: you need a full planning application (i.e. same as now).
Even in growth and renewal areas, you can bring forward schemes “different to the plan” through a full planning application (i.e. same as now).
Lots of (overdue, and – I think – exciting) ideas about digitising, standardising and shortening this bit of the process to try to make things quicker and easier, including new standard planning conditions, and a single max 50 page planning statement for major development. That’s it. That’s the application. 50 pages. Sounds good to me.
And an awwwwwful lot of detail still to come: e.g. on the detail of the new system for Environmental Impact Assessment and Sustainability Appraisals, how the Listed Buildings Act will be reformed, the detail of this new national design body, and how the consolidated new infrastructure levy will actually fund enough affordable housing (to name but a few).
3 things which aren’t (yet) proposed
If you asked 100 planoraks to name 3 ways to get housing delivery up towards the Government’s 300,000 annual target, I think a fair few of you might say:
- Liberalise our approach to building on the Green Belt;
- Re-introduce the regional tier of plan-making abolished by Eric Pickles in 2011; and
- Resource local planning departments properly.
Well, the political behemoth that is the Green Belt is one of the only aspects of the current system which has managed to escape any tinkering at all. Our radical once-in-a-generation reforms weren’t quite radical enough to go there.
Re-introducing regional planning isn’t proposed, but that said nothing is proposed yet to replace the abolished duty to cooperate when it comes to dealing with cross-boundary issues. So there’s a discussion to be had there.
And resourcing – well, the paper accepts that spending on planning has been substantially cut, and that has led to shortages of qualified personnel. There’s a lot in the paper about a “culture change” in planning departments to make them more tech-savy and outward looking, which is all very well. But a bold new era of digitised plan-making will be expensive. There’s a promise of a “resourcing and skills framework” – so we’ll wait and see on that. But not yet a promise of the cold, hard cash it’s likely to take to make these reforms actually work.
Finally, before the white paper came out, I asked:
Given that there are still authorities which have not adopted a local plan in the modern era, what happens in the transitional period (which could take decades!) before everybody’s zones are fixed? If they’re ever fixed? The traditional TCPA 1990 regime in some towns, the brand new zonal system elsewhere?
I still haven’t found the answer to that one!
When might it all happen? Well… the consultation runs to 29th October. After that there’ll be a need for “further development” of all this stuff, then primary legislation, secondary legislation and a new NPPF. No easy task. The white paper aims for new local plans in place by the end of this Parliament – so that takes us to 2024.
Take an hour this weekend, readers. Pour yourself something cold. Sit somewhere quiet and (hopefully) sunny. And read this thing cover to cover. And then get your consultee hats on, and sharpen those pencils. Or, maybe better for the all-digital future, charge up those Ipad styluses. We have until the end of October.
In the meantime, stay well, planoraks.