Have We Got No Planning Bill News For You

Nine months on from that planning white paper, we have seen no external signs of progress.

All eyes on the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021. Was there to be a narrowing down of previous options; a reflection on the consultation process; a programme set out of further work to be carried out ahead of the proposed Planning Bill, perhaps some new thinking following longer reflection?

Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward…

Turning to the background notes, there is literally nothing in the section on the proposed Planning Bill could not have been written back at the time of the white paper in August 2020 or that gives any indication as to ministers’ current thinking.

“The purpose of the Bill is to:

Create a simpler, faster and more modern planning system to replace the current one that dates back to 1947, and ensuring we no longer remain tied to procedures designed for the last century.

Ensure homes and infrastructure – like schools and hospitals – can be delivered more quickly across England.

Transform our planning system from a slow document-based one to a more efficient and easier to use digital and map-based service, allowing more active public engagement in the development of their local area.

Help deliver vital infrastructure whilst helping to protect and enhance the environment by introducing quicker, simpler frameworks for funding infrastructure and assessing environmental impacts and opportunities.

The main benefits of the Bill would be:

Providing more certainty for communities and developers, particularly smaller developers, about what is permitted where, through clear land allocations in local plans and stronger rules on design.

Simpler, faster procedures for producing local development plans, approving major schemes, assessing environmental impacts and negotiating affordable housing and infrastructure contributions from development.

Establishing a framework which focuses on positive outcomes, such as environmental opportunities and better designed places.

Digitising a system to make it more visual and easier for local people to meaningfully engage with.

The main elements of the Bill are:

Changing local plans so that they provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different categories of land.

Significantly decrease the time it takes for developments to go through the planning system.

Replacing the existing systems for funding affordable housing and infrastructure from development with a new more predictable and more transparent levy.

Using post-Brexit freedoms to simplify and enhance the framework for environmental assessments for developments.

Reforming the framework for locally led development corporations to ensure local areas have access to appropriate delivery vehicles to support growth and regeneration.

Territorial extent and application

The Bill will extend to the whole of the UK, however the majority of provisions will apply to England.”

In my view there can only be two possible reasons for this “no news” approach:

1. The Government may not yet have reached the necessary decisions – for instance as to how many zoning categories there will be, whether all land will be zoned or just parts of areas; or how this Infrastructure Levy will work. Quite possible. But come on! Nine months, and nothing?

2. Alternatively, the Government may not yet ready to take the political flak from its own that any specific proposals will attract. Despite the lack of any new information the reaction was surprisingly hostile, and even amongst the development industry I only hear at best muted, hedged and qualified support for elements of the white paper: are many politicians or business leaders prepared to be the cheer-leaders for these changes when, inevitably, the going gets politically tough? This will need a plan.

The only “new” element that caught my eye was that the long-flagged proposal to reform environmental assessment processes will now be within the Bill. It is another area where an announcement is overdue. Environment minister George Eustice indicated in his 20 July 2020 speech:

“Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system.”

The consultation never happened. Whether the legislation will indeed not only simplify but “enhance the EU derived framework of environmental assessments for developments” partly depends on what happens with a separate proposal within the forthcoming Judicial Review Bill:

Giving the courts the power to suspend quashing orders in Judicial Review cases, so as to allow defects to be remedied. This will enable the courts to have more flexibility in Judicial Review cases. This may help ensure that, for example, a large infrastructure project is not delayed because an impact assessment has not been properly done”

Steve Quartermain and Lord Matthew Taylor have written about what the Government could now be doing to deliver on many of the objectives of the white paper, without legislation, in their article Government’s Planning White Paper is a slow road to the future (The Independent, 24 March 2021) and I have written about the areas where planning law reform is genuinely needed (but overlooked in the white paper) in my article Please sir, please can we have more planning legislation? (Estates Gazette, 21 November 2020).

I hope we are not now faced with a Bill that is either a fait accompli, given the various areas which genuinely need a great deal more work and engagement, or (as likely) an empty legislative shell, leaving the difficult work for secondary legislation in due course.

Incidentally, as a topical reminder that how the system is operated is as important as how is how it is structured, in the same week as the traditional parading of the Government’s forthcoming legislative programme, we have seen yet another example of the delays to the system that are caused when the Government intervenes in relation to planning applications: the ministerial decision on 13 May 2021 to approve the Whitechapel Bell Foundry application called in on 22 January 2020. Almost 16 months’ unnecessary delay, not to mention much unnecessary cost. Never mind new laws: how much could be achieved by the Secretary of State simply deciding not to call in applications or recover appeals!

But I will leave more detailed commentary on that decision, and on the Secretary of State’s enigmatic subsequent statement on twitter this afternoon, until next week’s thrilling blog post.

Simon Ricketts, 15 May 2021

Personal views, et cetera

This Tuesday we held a #PlanningLawUnplanned Queen’s Speech Clubhouse session. If you attended I hope you found it useful. This Tuesday we’re going to run an essential session about the Clubhouse app itself and how to get the most out of it. All will become clear! Do join us (iphone invitation here if you are not yet a member).

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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