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Planning for the future
13 August 2020
This piece was originally published in Inside Housing.
New Governments often wave the magic wand at planning reform hoping it will cut through bureaucracy, increase housebuilding and, ultimately, boost the economy. While there have been some successes, overall, recent history is littered with examples of simplifying planning measures that have not lived up to the name. Step forward the White Paper, ‘Planning for the Future’ with yet another promise to deliver “a simpler framework” to “better support a more competitive market”. We’ve heard this before, but will this set of reforms be the real deal?
It’s all change…sort of
This is a charter for reform, wrapped in a blanket of continuity. There will still be local plans, assessed against national policy, which will have to be examined and approved by the Planning Inspectorate. Planning applications will still have to be made, but their scope, depending on where you are developing, will change. And developers will still be required to provide contributions towards local infrastructure and affordable housing. The biggest practical change is the welcome push towards making planning information more accessible through a digital-first approach.
The substantive change is the proposal for local plans to focus on identifying land under three categories: Growth (areas suitable for substantial development); Renewal (areas suitable for some development); and Protection (areas where development is restricted). Alongside these designations, local plans will set out local design codes and standards to be met. Development management policies will be set nationally through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) rather than locally. To assess if a local plan is fit for purpose a single statutory sustainable development test will be introduced replacing the raft of assessments currently required.
The move to a more tightly defined rules-based system (often referred to as zoning) means that for applications in Growth and Renewal areas – providing they are conforming with the rules within these areas – the principle that they can build there is generally automatically conferred. A planning application will still be required, but it will have a narrower scope compared to the current system. In Protection areas, with some exceptions, a full planning application assessed against relevant policy will still be required. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Conservation Areas fall into the Protection category, and London has quite a few of these.
Developer contributions – be careful what you wish for
The theme of change and continuity continues when dealing with developer contributions. The White Paper proposes to still seek contributions but in the form of an all-encompassing Infrastructure Levy, which would amalgamate planning obligations, which deliver, amongst other things, affordable housing, with the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).
This Levy would be set nationally with a single or varied rates and charged on the final value of a development (or an assessment of the sales value if the development is for the rent), based at the point planning permission is granted but collected at the point of occupation. A value threshold would be set to address concerns about the viability of development. Local authorities would also be allowed to borrow against Infrastructure Levy revenues to fund infrastructure.
The mechanism for delivering the affordable housing would be in-kind delivery on-site with a process to offset the cost to the final Levy payment. The White Paper goes on to propose a complex set of processes to minimise risk under this new system.
The White Paper rightly highlights that the current process for negotiating developer contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure is complex, protracted, and unclear, but it is not immediately apparent that these new proposals will deliver a smoother system. In recent years there has been a never-ending cycle of ideas to better extract value from planning, and it may well be that a single payment is the silver bullet we’ve all been looking for, but be careful what you wish for.
Finding a system that strikes the right balance between simplicity, speed, increasing affordable homes, and maintaining the viability of development is no mean feat – not least because the Government is also seeking to use a small amount of the Levy to help fund local planning services and states that its aim for the Levy is to “raise more revenue than under the current system” and deliver “at least as much – if not more – on-site affordable housing” than present. There are a lot of policies objectives packed into this change and we wait to see if they can all be delivered.
London: anyone, anyone, anyone?
There are precisely three mentions of London in the White Paper; two of these are for the address of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the other one states that the Mayoral CIL charged in London could form part of the newly proposed Infrastructure Levy. At this stage, it makes sense not to read too much into the lack of detail.
The paper does state that “local authorities, including Mayoral combined authorities, will be liberated to plan and able to focus on what they do best”. While the GLA is not typically referred to as a combined authority, it does at least show there is room for Mayoral strategies in the Government’s thinking. Clarification, however, is required about how the Mayor’s unique combination of plan-making and decision taking powers focused on the London Plan will work under this new planning regime.
Interesting to note
Unsurprisingly, the Government ducked making changes to Green Belt policy. Its critique of the planning system being outdated (shaped by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947) doesn’t seem to apply to the Green Belt, a concept that first appeared in English town planning during the Victorian era! Protection of the Green Belt was a manifesto pledge as was increasing home ownership and interestingly the latter also makes it into the White Paper.
The Government wants the new planning system not just to increase housebuilding but also homeownership. The Government’s response to the First Homes Consultation (discounted market sale homes for first time buyers) reiterates this emphasis, with the NPPF set to be amended to require that a minimum of 25% of affordable homes secured through a section 106 agreement should be First Homes.
Commercial development doesn’t get much of a mention and while it is correct to focus on building more homes, as the full economic impact of the coronavirus becomes clearer, there is scope to say more about the importance and need to adapt our business districts (notwithstanding the recent changes announced on Use Classes).
Lastly, aesthetics gets a look in with a proposal to introduce “a fast-track process for beauty which would automatically permit proposals for high quality developments where they reflect local character and preferences”. It brings a whole new meaning to the idea of a beauty parade.
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