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Wed September 23 2020

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Planning reforms introduce presumption in favour of development

6 Aug A 12-week consultation period starts today on proposals that could change the UK’s planning system for a generation.

Front cover of the government's consultation document
Front cover of the government's consultation document

The Ministry for Housing has published proposals for categorising all land under three types, to be set out in mandatory local plans: Growth areas suitable for substantial development, renewal areas suitable for development, and areas that are protected.

The overall aim is to make it quicker for developers to get planning permission.

Called Planning for the future, the document says that any development in a designated growth area would automatically have outline approval in principle, but it would still need detailed planning permission – a point missed by many commentators.

“Further details would be agreed and full permission achieved through streamlined and faster consent routes which focus on securing good design and addressing site-specific technical issues,” the consultation paper says.

It continues: “Detailed planning permission could be secured in one of three ways:

  • a reformed reserved matters process for agreeing the issues which remain outstanding;
  • a Local Development Order prepared by the local planning authority for the development which could be prepared in parallel with the Local Plan and be linked to a master plan and design codes; or
  • for exceptionally large sites such as a new town where there are often land assembly and planning challenges, we also want to explore whether a Development Consent Order under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime could be an appropriate route to secure consents. Similarly, we will consider how the planning powers for Development Corporations can be reformed to reflect this new framework.”

In renewal areas, there would be a general presumption in favour of development established in legislation (achieved by strengthening the emphasis on taking a plan-led approach, with plans reflecting the general appropriateness of these areas for development). Consent for development would be granted in one of three ways:

  • for pre-specified forms of development such as the redevelopment of certain building types, through a new permission route which gives an automatic consent if the scheme meets design and other prior approval requirements;
  • for other types of development, a faster planning application process where a planning application for the development would be determined in the context of the Local Plan description, for what development the area or site is appropriate for, and with reference to the National Planning Policy Framework; or
  • a Local or Neighbourhood Development Order."

It is also proposed that there will be a new system of developer contributions. Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy will be replaced with a new Infrastructure Levy that would be a fixed proportion of the value of the development, above a set threshold, helping to deliver more affordable housing. Revenues would be spent locally on projects such as new roads, upgraded playgrounds and discounted homes for local, first-time buyers.

The consultation paper also contains ‘fast-track for beauty’ proposals first put forward by Living in Beauty, the January 2020 report from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Our complex planning system has been a barrier to building the homes people need; it takes seven years to agree local housing plans and 5 years just to get a spade in the ground.

“These once in a generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country. We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.

“As we face the economic effects of the pandemic, now is the time for decisive action and a clear plan for jobs and growth. Our reforms will create thousands of jobs, lessen the dominance of big builders in the system, providing a major boost for small building companies across the country.”

James Thomson, chief executive of house-builder Gleeson Homes, is all for it. He said: “We strongly support the reform of our historic planning system, to bring it up to speed and ensure it is fit for purpose for the modern-day. In particular, we welcome initiatives to make it more transparent, speed up planning where appropriate and has a presumption towards development rather than against.”

The Federation of Small Businesses is also enthusiastic. Its policy & advocacy chair Martin McTague said: “It’s great to see government finally stepping into this area, the bureaucracy surrounding which has long dogged small firms. The current planning process is slow, complicated and far too cumbersome, putting small construction firms off building applications. For years, it’s been fraught with uncertainty and lengthy delays, making projects expensive before a shovel has even hit the ground.

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“So the news of this plan to overhaul the system is a hugely welcome. We look forward to working with the Ministry and wider government officials to feed into this consultation and hone what will hopefully become a more productive and positive planning process.

“Businesses that want to extend or build new premises, whether that be in city centres or rural areas, will hopefully be able to speed up a process that can take months or even years, as well as lowering costs. The proposed measures also include exempting small firms from Section 106, a levy which has for so long priced businesses out of building work. This sort of proposal shows that the Government is serious about making the lives of small firms better. These plans will give a crucial injection of energy into the small business construction sector which has been devastated for years now by the financial downturn and tricky planning conditions."

Mike Derbyshire, head of planning at planning consultant Bidwells, said it didn’t go far enough and wants to free up the green belts for development. "Green belts are still strangling our cities and the continued refusal of the government to countenance freeing up the green belt for residential and commercial development risks stunting the growth of our fastest growing towns and cities, like Oxford and Cambridge, which will be vital for our post-pandemic recovery.”

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), said: “The policy paper published by the government today represents a massive change to the planning system. There are some major propositions contained within the document that will not only require the government to work hand-in-hand with the planning profession to implement, but will also demand some serious resourcing.

“The RTPI will judge the success of these reforms on how successfully they tackle inequality, accelerate progress to net-zero carbon emissions, promote sustainable transport and answer the need for strategic planning.

“It is, however, extremely encouraging to see recognition in the proposals of the importance of a local plan, quality design, community engagement and a plan-led approach.

“We will be consulting widely with our members on these proposals and look forward to working constructively with the government to deliver sensible, realistic reforms that will ensure the high quality homes we need, and a sustainable, resilient and inclusive future for the UK. We must however not lose sight in the immediate term of the need to resource planning now so it can support the green recovery we all want to see.” 

But local councils clearly have deeper reservations but any erosion of their democratic powers. Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are committed to ensuring new homes are built and communities have quality places to live. It is vital that these are delivered through a locally-led planning system with public participation at its heart which gives communities the power to ensure new developments are of a high standard, built in the right places, and include affordable homes. We also need to ensure that new homes are supported by new funding for community infrastructure such as schools, playgrounds and roads.

“Nine in 10 applications are approved by councils with more than a million homes given planning permission over the last decade yet to be built. The system needs to ensure planning permissions are built. Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern. It would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas.

“We will need to look properly at these proposals in detail, but councils 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.

“It is vital that government fully engages with and takes advantage of the expertise in local government to ensure that their aspirations of an improved system works in practice. We look forward to responding to this consultation in detail and working with government to ensure any reforms improve the system and protect the rights of communities to shape the areas they live in.

“If we are to truly fix our chronic housing shortage, councils need the tools, powers and flexibilities to plan for and deliver the quality homes and places communities need."

The full consultation document is available at: www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future

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