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Government announces planning shake-up

Sara Parkinson, our planning & development programme director, looks at the Government’s productivity plan, which includes a range of planning reforms.

Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation announced by Chancellor George Osborne and Business Secretary Sajid Javid, includes a range of proposals aimed at solving the housing crisis.

 

Faster planning for brownfield land

The Government proposes legislation to grant ‘automatic permission’ for development on brownfield land, which will be ‘subject to the approval of a limited number of technical details’.

Whilst measures to accelerate housing delivery on brownfield land are positive, the inherent suggestion that the grant of permission will be immediate is misleading. The critical social, transport and utilities infrastructure needed to support development, alongside key issues of environmental impact, flood risk and sustainability also need to be taken into account. Without this the areas are unlikely to come forward any faster. We also expect clarity on how detailed design will be dealt with.

Proposed reforms to Compulsory Purchase Powers to modernise the system are also welcomed, particularly where they make the process simpler and faster thereby speeding up timescales for development delivery.

 

Driving forward Local Plans

The National Planning Policy Framework’s (2012) presumption in favour of sustainable development, which states that permission should be granted where there is no up-to-date plan, was not incentive enough for local authorities to expedite local plan preparation, with a large number of plans still outstanding.

Proposed reforms to improve local plan delivery include the benchmarking of local authorities in a league table against a deadline for the preparation of local plans (to be confirmed in summer). The Secretary of State would then be able to intervene “to arrange for local plans to be written, in consultation with local people” where boroughs are not performing.

Where intervention for London boroughs is required, we believe clarity needs to be provided on the Mayor’s role in this process.  Clarity on the conditions for intervention – for example, where examination is imminent or has been unsuccessful and on the role for local people in the plan making process, should also be provided.

We expect the Government’s proposals to ‘significantly streamline the length and process of local plans’ to be welcomed by the public and private sector. However, the reforms should focus on simplifying the plan preparation process and not cutting corners on the important engagement and consultation elements. This is welcomed alongside strengthening of ‘duty to co-operate’ on key housing and planning issues.

 

Releasing land for more homes

As part of these reforms the Government will look at how national policy can support higher density development at key commuter hubs. Whilst welcome, we expect that this will have limited effect in London except to reinforce the policy approaches for higher density in the London Plan.

The government will also consider “how national policy and guidance can ensure that unneeded commercial land can be released for housing”. Whilst the redevelopment of derelict and unviable commercial land can contribute to housing delivery, a considered approach to the development of national policy is required.  A blanket permitted development right risks significantly reducing the supply of available commercial and industrial development. This could seriously impact on the economy in terms of increasing land and rental values and decreasing supply of premises, particularly for SMEs. At the least, we would expect a set of conditions/criteria to apply to test the land is ‘unneeded’.

This issue is critical for London, which already faces a constrained land supply. Significant losses of commercial land and floorspace through the office-to-residential permitted development rights has exacerbated this and additional changes would only further constrain supply.

 

Devolution of powers to London

New confirmed devolved powers, specifically requested by the Mayor of London, relate to safeguarded wharves and sightlines and removing the need for the Secretary of State to sanction changes to designations.

Proposals to end to the need for planning permission for upwards extensions for a limited number of storeys up to the height of the adjoining building could prove controversial. These reforms to the General Permitted Development Order for London would only be available where neighbouring residents do not object.

We expect this to be received with mixed reviews from the development sector, with the lack of clarity on how matters of design and appearance and scope of impacts such daylight/sunlight will be dealt with remaining a high concern.

The government also aims to bring forward proposals to allow the Mayor to call in planning applications of 50 homes or more, allowing him to support more planning applications that will help to meet London’s needs.

This was key ask of our recent report Carrots & Sticks: A targets and incentives approach to getting more homes built in London.

Reducing the Mayor’s current call-in threshold for planning applications from 150 homes to 50 homes is a positive move. It will allow the Mayor to focus more strategically on increasing housebuilding in London. London’s boroughs will still take the lead in determining all applications but where problems emerge or boroughs have a poor record in securing the housing delivery that London needs, its right that the Mayor should have the ability to step-in.

The Government will need to work with the Greater London Authority to ensure that it has sufficient resource to utilise this new power. While the focus has been on introducing a “stick”, there is also a good case to consider offering boroughs a “carrot” as well. This could be increasing the financial incentives for local authorities to accommodate more homes in their area.

 

Improving the planning process

The government says any major infrastructure project which has “elements of housing development” will be fast-tracked under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Regime (NSIP). Alongside devolution, this could have the most significant impact on the capital of all the reforms.

It will allow better integration of housing and mixed use development around crucial infrastructure projects such as Crossrail 2 and HS2. So far, planning for above ground projects has been subject to a separate planning regime. Creating a one stop shop for the planning process, bringing together key stakeholders, together with Secretary of State determination, whilst still maintaining critical community engagement, reduces the decision process to an 18-month period and therefore accelerates delivery.

Proposals to tighten the performance regime for decisions on applications of all sizes will increase the scrutiny of local authorities’ performance in making planning decisions within the statutory timeframe. This reinforces the need for greater focus on frontloading and pre-application engagement between developers and planning authorities. Planning Performance Agreements will be a key mechanism to frontload the planning process to enable the public and private sector to agree key issues prior to the submission of the application.

There are also proposals for a dispute resolution mechanism to speed up the process of Section 106 negotiations, which will undoubtedly be welcomed as they will speed up the planning process.

Contact: Sara Parkinson, sparkinson@londonfirst.co.uk

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