A demolition job on the planning system

By Michael Burton | 18 August 2020

Last week’s planning White Paper was hailed by the Prime Minister as ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’ and he went on, in typical Boris-speak, to talk of ‘not more fiddling around the edges, not simply painting over the damp patches, but levelling the foundations and building, from the ground up, a whole new planning system for England’.

Reaction so far has been rather more mixed, with particular focus on the White Paper’s alleged failure to address the chronic shortage of social housing, the tendency of local communities especially in better-off areas to oppose new housing, and abolition of s106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy. Councils have also criticised proposed new zones guaranteeing outline planning permission which they say takes away their powers to influence development.

So what problems are the White Paper, Planning for the future, trying to address? It says the planning system is too complicated and cumbersome and benefits large companies while most decisions to give consent are done on a case-by-case basis rather than on set guidelines. Local Plans take too long to be adopted with an average of seven years and only 50% of councils have them in place anyway. The total amount of extra housing in the adopted plans comes to 187,000 extra homes which is still way below the 240,000 delivered last year let alone the government target of 300,000 homes annually. Negotiations over s102 and infrastructure levy agreements delay consent. The system relies too much on paperwork and needs to be more digitally-enabled.

The consultation White Paper’s wish list wants new developments to be ‘beautiful,’ for residents to have an earlier say in setting planning guidelines and Local Plans and for the system to be more digitised so residents can check ‘on their smartphones’ and ‘in digital neighbourhood groups and social networks.’ It wants both more housing where there is demand and also to ‘promote the stewardship and improvement of our precious countryside and environment, ensuring important natural assets are preserved’ and meet the climate change challenge.

So how will these lofty, and at times contradictory, goals be achieved? The paper proposes simplifying Local Plans into three zones, growth, renewal and protected, halving the time it takes for planning permission. Growth zone areas would automatically be granted outline planning permission for the principles of development.  In renewal areas there would be a general presumption in favour of development. In protected areas planning permission would have to be sought as it is currently.

Local Plans should also be shorter, by two thirds, with just a set of standards for developers and be completed within 30 months. A new nationally determined, binding housing requirement will have to be delivered through councils’ Local Plans. This would be focused on areas where affordability pressure is highest. The paper adds: ‘Local Plans will be developed over a fixed 30-month period with clear engagement points, rather than the current inconsistent process which takes seven years on average.’ It adds: ‘Local Plans should instead be focused on where they can add real value: allocating enough land for development in the right places, giving certainty about what can be developed on that land, making the process for getting permission for development as simple as possible.’ Plans would have to be renewed at last every five years.

The paper optimistically envisages greater use by the public of digital technology including giving their views on their smartphones and social networks and promises to work with tech companies and councils to modernise the software used in planning applications. As a result ‘residents will no longer have to rely on planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers and posted in libraries to find out about newly proposed developments. Instead people will be able to use their smartphone to give their views on Local Plans and design codes as they are developed, and to see clearer, more visual information about development proposals near them.’ The paper also wants encouragement of attractive housing and calls for every council to have a chief officer for design and place-making.

The current system of s106 and community infrastructure levy will be replaced by a single infrastructure levy, ‘a nationally set, value-based flat rate charge,’ which the paper envisages will raise more revenue for affordable housing. In 2018/19 s106 agreements were worth £7bn of which £4.7bn was for affordable housing.   It says that ‘this reform will enable us to sweep away months of negotiation of Section 106 agreements and the need to consider site viability’ and promises ‘to ensure’ this will enable more affordable housing. It adds: ‘We will ensure that affordable housing provision supported through developer contributions is kept at least at current levels, and that it is still delivered on-site to ensure that new development continues to support mixed communities.’ It also says it will allow the new levy to apply to changes of use through permitted development rights and promises that ‘the Infrastructure Levy will be more transparent than Section 106, and local communities will have more control over how it is spent.’ It will apply at the final value of a development not, as in the current CIL, at the point when planning permission is granted.

The current stipulation that 25% of the CIL must be spent where the development occurs such as being handed to parish councils in parished areas will apply to the new levy but the White Paper also suggests principal authorities can spend the levy income on wider policy areas or even reducing council tax, not just housing. Some of the income should also be allocated to councils to cover the costs of their planning departments including developing Local Plans bearing in mind the government believes currently under-manned planning departments need to be modernised and digitised.

Consultation lasts for 12 weeks from August 6 and once agreed will require primary and secondary legislation. The government envisages Local Plans under the new 30-month deadline therefore being completed by 2025.

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