In our July Spotlights, we mentioned that our Director Maggie had been getting some insight into anticipated planning reforms in England through her role as a member of the British Chamber of Commerce’s expert planning panel. Now, we are delighted to be able to share some of that insight more widely, with a guest blog on these reforms from one of Maggie’s fellow panel members, Amanda Beresford, Partner and Head of Planning at Schofield Sweeney LLP. As Amanda says in her blog, there is much that the planning systems in each of the UK’s devolved jurisdictions can learn from each other, and so we are grateful to her for sharing her reflections on the proposed changes.
Planning for the future
On 6th August 2020 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published its White Paper ‘Planning for the future’ proposing what it described as a radical reform of the planning system. It only applies to England. Planning is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however the planning systems in each jurisdiction can learn much from each other and as such it is relevant to them to monitor what happens elsewhere and draw on that experience.
In introducing the paper Boris Johnson states that the proposal is for ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War ‘ and that England’s ‘potential is being artificially constrained by a relic from the middle of the 20th Century – our outdated and ineffective planning system’.
The main headlines of the proposed reforms are as follows:
- Simplified Local Plans that would
- zone land into ‘growth areas ‘ where outline permission for specified development would be automatically granted, ‘renewal areas’ being mainly existing built up areas where there would be a presumption in favour of development and ‘protected areas’ where more stringent controls would apply,
- be subject to a new legal test of ‘sustainable development‘, replacing the current test of ‘soundness’,
- contain less general development policies, focus more on area specific policies with the National Planning Policy Framework becoming the primary source of development management policies,
- not be required to comply with the current legal duty to cooperate with further consideration to be given as to how cross plan boundary matters should be dealt with, and
- be subject to a statutory 30-month timetable to prepare and adopt.
- Possible scrapping of the requirement on Councils to maintain a five year housing land supply and changes to assessing housing need through a new standard housing method which would focus new housing development where affordability pressure is highest and on brown field land.
- The introduction of significantly more digitalisation and IT into the planning process both in plan making and development control. Plans would be ‘visual and map based…based on the latest digital technology‘ and consultation relying less on site notices and more on smart phones.
- The introduction of a ‘fast-track for beauty‘, with high quality development benefitting from a form of automatic permission, a requirement for developments to create a net gain and binding locally produced design codes.
- The replacement of affordable housing, other Section 106 obligations and the current Community Infrastructure Levy with a new Single Infrastructure Levy.
- A firm deadline for determining planning applications with return of planning fees if the deadline is not met. Applications to be submitted in a simpler form and to be determined by planning officers, rather than by a planning committee of elected members, if they accord with the Local Plan.
Few would disagree with the aspirations of the proposed reforms which include making the planning system simpler, clearer and quicker and one that encourages sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development. Most would agree that some reform is necessary. Many would welcome the greater use of appropriate technology. However, ‘the devil is in the details’ and these won’t emerge until later.
Some important areas are completely lacking in detail. For example, it is proposed to abolish the statutory duty on Local Planning Authorities to cooperate with adjacent authorities and other specified bodies. This was introduced to ensure strategic, cross boundary matters are properly dealt with in drawing up development plans. The details of what is to replace it are yet to be determined. The statutory duty to cooperate is a relatively recent introduction and has never worked well so it will not be missed. Its replacement, however, must be fit for purpose.
There are several areas where particular care will be required to ensure the reforms work as intended. The proposed amendments to the standard method of assessing housing may conflict with the levelling up agenda if the result is a focus on providing housing in the wealthier parts of the South East to the detriment of the less wealthy North. The proposed new Single Infrastructure Levy risks stymying development in poorer areas without some form of additional public funding.
There are some areas of potential difficulty. The quest for beauty in design is at odds with the recent changes the Government has made to Permitted Development Rights, which have created more opportunities for less regulated development to be built. Proposals to increase speed of decision making may not sit easily with enhancing the quality of development. One of the objectives of the reforms is stated as giving communities greater say in what is built, however there is a clear tension between this and placing more decision making in the hands of non-elected planning officers and a greater emphasis on National Planning Policy in development control.
The proposals will only work if Local Planning Authorities are sufficiently well resourced to implement them and currently many authorities are suffering financially due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. As well as cash the authorities will need access to people with the right skills. Without action there is probably not enough people with the right skills available within the time frame required. The White Paper acknowledges that a resourcing and skills strategy will have to be formulated and the details of this will be important.
Overall reform of the planning system is welcome and the aims of the Government are laudable, however there is much to do to get the details right and to adequately resource the authorities to be able to implement reform.
Thanks for reading!
Partner and Head of Planning, Schofield Sweeney LLP.
It just remains for us to say thank you very much to Amanda for this, and we will certainly be keeping our eye out for what happens next (and may of course need to ask Amanda for a another blog as the further details she refers to emerge!).
Meantime, to find out how we can help with any aspect of the planning process, please visit our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you would like to see our other blogs or sign up for email updates, please click here.