‘Twas The Week Before Recess

The House of Commons and House of Lords both rise on 22 July 2021 and are due to return on 6 September 2021, which means that each year this week and next we always see many documents published and announcements made. Much festivity.

This week last year the Planning White Paper was eagerly awaited of course but ran late, eventually being published in the first week of August. At one stage we had expected an update by the Government on progress by now, including its response to last year’s consultation process but Robert Jenrick announced back at the beginning of the month that we will not see this until the Autumn and there will be no Bill until some time after that. (For a summary of MHCLG’s current priorities, see his 6 July 2021 speech to the Local Government Association, or indeed Nicola Gooch’s 16 July 2021 blog post on the speech).

But there have already been various other announcements and publications and in this post I will just pick randomly from them, Quality Street style.

Of particular interest is the Department for Transport’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan (14 July 2021) which sets out the road map (no, wrong expression) for reducing transport’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. It is a turbo-charged (no, wrong expression), “high ambition”, plan covering all modes of transport. There is a wide-ranging series of commitments over 220 pages of text.

What is there that directly refers to the planning system? Aside from confirmation that the Government will be reviewing the National Networks National Policy Statement, there is a wider commitment to “embed transport decarbonisation principles in spatial planning and across transport policymaking“. Pages 156 to 160 address this in detail and I am going to no more than set out below large sections of this section:

…The planning system has an important role to play in encouraging development that promotes a shift towards sustainable transport networks and the achievement of net zero transport systems.

Traffic issues have often caused opposition to housebuilding. There is a legacy of developments that give people few alternatives to driving, are difficult to serve efficiently by public transport and are laid out in ways which discourage walking and cycling. Developments which are planned to minimise car use, promote sustainable transport choices, and are properly connected to existing public transport could help make new building more publicly acceptable.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) makes clear we already expect sustainable transport issues to be considered from the earliest stages of plan-making and development proposals, so that opportunities to promote cycling, walking and public transport are pursued. Planning policies should already provide for high quality cycling and walking networks and supporting facilities such as cycle parking (drawing on Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans). The NPPF also outlines that new developments should promote sustainable transport, taking opportunities to promote walking, cycling and public transport. However, while many local plans already say the right things, they are not always followed consistently in planning decisions. Developments often do little or nothing meaningful to enable cycling and walking, or to be properly and efficiently accessible by public transport. Sometimes they make cycling and walking provision worse. We can and must do better.

Last summer, the Government set out its vision for a new and improved planning system in the Planning for the Future White Paper, a vision to make good on the Government’s pledge to build back better, build back faster and build back greener. The White Paper set out how the planning system is central to our most important national challenges, including combating climate change and supporting sustainable growth.

A reformed planning system can assist in achieving the ambition of a zero emission transport future. The planning reforms will provide an opportunity to consider how sustainable transport is planned for and importantly how it is delivered to support sustainable growth and drive more sustainable use of our existing built environment e.g. planning for new development around existing transport hubs, for all developments to be easily and safely accessible and navigable by foot and cycle, and to make existing cycling and walking provision better. Through good design and proper consideration of the needs of our communities, we can better connect people, making communities more accessible, inclusive, safe, and attractive as well as promoting the principles of 20-minute neighbourhoods. We are working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and the Local Government Association to place cycling, walking and public transport provision at the heart of local plan making and decision taking for new developments. In doing so, we recognise the particular challenges faced by rural and remote areas in this regard, and will work, including through the upcoming Future of Transport: Rural Strategy, to ensure policies recognise differing geographies.

The National Model Design Code sets out a process for developing local design codes and guides, with supporting design guidance on movement and public spaces including streets. It outlines an expectation that development should consist of a well-connected network of streets with good public transport and an emphasis on active travel modes including walking and cycling. Building on this, we will also ensure that an updated Manual for Streets aligns with these principles and is routinely used for plan making and decision taking to secure better outcomes for our streets and public realm. These documents can play a key role in delivering high quality, accessible, secure and safe cycle storage. We will work with Active Travel England and other key stakeholders to ensure that the importance of securing high quality cycling and walking provision is embedded within the planning system.

We recognise that the Government has a role in helping Local Planning and Highways Authorities to better plan for sustainable transport and develop innovative policies to reduce car dependency. We need to move away from transport planning based on predicting future demand to provide capacity (‘predict and provide’) to planning that sets an outcome communities want to achieve and provides the transport solutions to deliver those outcomes (sometimes referred to as ‘vision and validate’). We will continue to work with MHCLG to identify how we can best support local authorities to develop innovative sustainable transport policies as part of the planning process, how this can be used to better assess planning applications, and better monitor local transport outcomes to deliver on our ambitions for sustainable transport use.

Achieving these ambitions will require a long-term collective effort across government, local authorities, communities, businesses, and developers. We are exploring with MHCLG how the planning system can be designed to facilitate better collaboration and planning for growth across local authority boundaries, with all key stakeholders involved, to ensure that we align that growth with both strategic and local infrastructure delivery to make good on our manifesto commitment to put infrastructure first and drive growth sustainably.”

The next day, 15 July 2021, we had the Prime Minister’s florid Levelling Up speech, although for actual announcements it might be better to go straight to, for example, a press statement issued the same day: PM sets out new ‘County Deals’ to devolve power to local communities in Levelling Up speech (15 July 2021).

“New ‘County Deals’ to take devolution beyond the largest cities, offering the rest of England the same powers metro mayors have gained over things like transport, skills and economic support.

County Deals will be bespoke to the needs of individual places, bringing decisions closer to people and places, potentially allowing more places to benefit from strong, high profile local champions. County Deals will give places the tools they need to pilot new ideas, create jobs, drive growth and improve public services.

Further detail will be set out in the Levelling Up White Paper, but as the Prime Minister set out, county deals will not be one size fits all, and government will take a flexible approach to allow more places to agree devolution.”

The same day there was also the press statement Government strategy to regenerate high streets (MHCLG, 15 July 2021), with various announcements, including the publication of Build Back BHS – apologies: Build Back Better High Streets. Compulsory purchase practitioners will be interested to see this passage:

“We are […] encouraging councils to use Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) for long-term empty properties and where property owners are stalling regeneration plans. We want to:

• Ensure councils have the right Compulsory Purchase Order enabling powers to support the transformation of high streets and other regeneration projects so that they can acquire vacant and derelict buildings in order to attract new private investment.

• Ensure as part of our planning reforms that Compulsory Purchase Orders can support more effective land assembly to facilitate the development of growth areas identified in the new-style local plans, particularly when they support town centre regeneration.

Strengthen the capacity and support for local authorities to ensure they are able to use these new Compulsory Purchase Order powers and rights to support the transformation of high streets.”

As regards the conversion of high streets to homes, the following passage was eyebrow raising. So how would this work with the operation of permitted development rights then? And the provision of “green infrastructure” a justification for development intensification?

Where high streets are being repurposed for homes, green infrastructure and improved public space should be integral. We will explore how reforms to the planning system can ensure green infrastructure is better incorporated into new development. Development of homes, businesses and community space could be intensified on parts of sites to free up land for green infrastructure provision.”

And just to keep practitioners on their toes, there was the Planning Inspectorate’s announcement Plans to resume in-person events (15 July 2021). In one part of the policy forest there’s the transport decarbonisation plan, in another part, brmm brmm, off we go back to in person inquiries from 13 September:

“For hearings and inquiries taking place from 13 September we will be reverting to the pre-pandemic approach of them being arranged by local authorities. In-person events will be possible, but where participants (including the inspector) need to present their evidence or participate virtually this will need to be facilitated by the local authority.

Where in-person elements are planned, the local authority will need to be prepared for the event to be held fully virtually in case pandemic restrictions change.

Let’s see what more announcements the coming week brings…

Simon Ricketts, 16 July 2021

Personal views, et cetera

This week’s clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned session (6pm Tuesday 20 July) is on the theme “A Green Recovery”: what does it mean; what opportunities? Lucy Wood (Barton Willmore) will lead the session, which will take a good hard look at the government’s green policy agenda (including the transport decarbonisation plan) and what it means for business, councils and communities, alongside special guests including Neil Collar (Brodies) and others still to be confirmed. An invitation to the app and event is here.

(Public transport = tick).

Author: simonicity

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

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