are probably the three words I most associate with the planning system in England, since you asked.
The main part of this post is a commentary by special guest and fellow Town partner Duncan Field on the Government’s Planning for the future white paper, published on 6 August 2020.
But before we get to that, some initial comments from me on timescales.
The consultation period on the white paper ends on 29 October 2020.
The aspiration in the document is that (subject to time extensions for recent plans) new local plans should be in place by the end of this Parliament, so by Spring 2024. Given that those local plans will take up to 30 months to be put in place under the new system proposed, the necessary primary legislation will need to have been passed and in force, with any necessary accompanying Regulations and guidance, by Autumn 2021.
By way of proxy for legislative timescales, the less ambitious Housing and Planning Act 2016 and Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 each took around seven months to pass through the necessary Parliamentary stages, which would mean introducing a Bill by the beginning of 2021. One perhaps has to look back to the Localism Act 2011 for planning legislation of equivalent complexity. That took eleven months from soup to nuts.
Something is going to have to give – either there is going to be rushed consideration of these proposals, which still need significant refinement, or that “end of this Parliament” aspiration is going to have to be reconsidered before long.
But in any event, things can be expected to move quickly.
On the subject of timescales, of course there are shorter term measures proposed in MHCLG’s accompanying document “Changes to the current planning system: Consultation on changes to planning policy and regulations”, which is the subject of a shorter consultation period, until 1 October.
The timescales in that document for the four sets of proposals within it are as follows:
· changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need: “Following the outcome of this consultation, the Government will update the planning practice guidance with the revised standard method for assessing local housing need.”
· securing of First Homes through developer contributions in the short term until the transition to a new system: “We intend to begin by making planning policy changes, to ensure that clear expectations are set. However, to ensure that First Homes are delivered, nationwide, on a consistent basis, we are keeping under consideration the option to strengthen the policy through primary legislation at a future date. We also intend to introduce an exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy for First Homes, to enable delivery prior to wider developer contribution reform. This would require changes to regulations. Lastly, we are also considering significant reforms to the system of developer contributions. We will ensure that First Homes will continue to be delivered under a reformed approach”
· supporting small and medium-sized builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing: “Following the consultation, a decision will be taken on whether to proceed with this approach. If it is taken forward, this could be through the introduction of a Written Ministerial Statement in the Autumn.”
· extending the current Permission in Principle to major development: “Following this consultation, if we introduce Permission in Principle by application for major development, we aim to introduce amending regulations this Autumn, with the regulations expected to come into force by the end of the calendar year. Changes to the fee structure would require separate changes to the Planning Fees Regulations.”
The white paper is in my view a considered document and less radical than might have been expected, although certainly ambitious in its breadth. Proposals spin out of it, one after the other, often just in a sentence or two. There are of course areas where there needs to be further thought or explanation. For me, there are two big ones in particular:
⁃ the way in which housing numbers are to be set by the Government for individual authorities and how to resolve the inevitable tension between a swifter examination process and a process that allows proposals in a plan (and the basis for proposals not being in the plan) to be properly tested (particularly where the plan is going to be the equivalent of a series of outline planning permissions for its growth areas);
⁃ how this new infrastructure levy is really going to work and how obligations are going to be addressed that presently are dealt with by way of section 106 agreement, in particular the delivery of affordable housing.
There will also have to be a clear working through of the respective powers and responsibilities across the system, as between government, strategic authorities, local planning authorities and neighbourhoods.
I must say that I found Chris Katkowski QC’s explanations in the latest Have We Got Planning News For You episode really helpful in bringing the proposals, and the thinking behind them, to life. And, boring to say, there is no substitute for reading the actual document.
We are going to drill down into the likely practical implications of the proposals in our next webinar, arranged for 5 pm on 13 August. Do register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ddkW3FG1SeS4j1XuV5KK6A . The panel will be:
• Chris Young QC (barrister, No 5 Chambers)
• Steve Quartermain CBE (consultant, Town Legal LLP)
• Catriona Riddell (Catriona Riddell & Associates)
• Duncan Field (partner, Town Legal LLP)
• Thea Osmund-Smith (barrister, No 5 Chambers)
• Gordon Adams (Battersea Power Station)
Now, Duncan’s thoughts, as follows:
Planning for the Future begins with some fairly combative language, referring to “our outdated and ineffective planning system” and drawing comparisons with a patched up building which needs to be torn down.
In truth the Government’s proposals do not go quite as far as that and in practice, to continue with the same analogy, we might end up with a better and more sustainable outcome if we were to save the parts of the “patched up building” which have architectural merit. The biggest problem with the current system is not that it is all inherently bad but that it is not sufficiently resourced; it is a pity that planning reforms by successive Governments have never really grappled with that central issue. The good news on this occasion is that the new system will be accompanied by a comprehensive skills and resources strategy for local authorities and key participants in the system; let’s hope the Government delivers on that.
Further on in the document there are some powerful words from the Secretary of State which bring home just how important a time this is for the planning system and what it can deliver. It is hard to disagree with any of this:
The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the economic and social lives of the entire nation. With so many people spending more time at home than ever before, we have come to know our homes, gardens and local parks more intimately. For some this has been a welcome opportunity to spend more time in the place they call home with the people they love. For others – those in small, substandard homes, those unable to walk to distant shops or parks, those struggling to pay their rent, or indeed for those who do not have a home of their own at all – this has been a moment where longstanding issues in our development and planning system have come to the fore.
Onto the objectives for reform, which can be summarised as follows:
• Reduce complexity and with it, uncertainty and delay.
• In doing so, deliver a more competitive market with a greater diversity of developers.
• Remove the discretionary nature of individual development management decisions and replace it with a rule-based system of development control.
• In doing so, reduce planning risk and the cost of capital for development.
• Reduce the time it takes to produce a local plan.
• Simplify assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts.
• Restore public trust and encourage more widespread public participation.
• Get better at unlocking growth and opportunity, encouraging beautiful new places, supporting town and city centres and revitalising existing buildings as well as new development.
• Harness digital technology.
Linked to this is a long list of desired outcomes including the user experience, home ownership, access to infrastructure, economic growth and innovation.
We then come to the main proposals which the Government intends to bring forward:
1. Local plans
a. These will be simplified so that they only identify land for development, the sites that should be protected and the development that can take place. There would be three categories of land:
i. Growth – sites suitable for comprehensive development which, once allocated, will have outline approval for development.
ii. Renewal – sites where smaller scale development is appropriate, which would benefit from a statutory presumption in favour of development once allocated.
iii. Protected – sites with environmental or cultural characteristics where development should be subject to more stringent controls.
An alternative approach might be a more binary system (growth and renewal with permission in principle versus protected areas) or more scope for the existing development management approach in areas other than those allocated for “growth”.
b. Plans should become digital, visual and map-based, interactive and data rich, using a standardised approach to support open access.
c. Local plans (and neighbourhood plans) will be more focused on giving clear area-specific requirements for land that is allocated for growth and renewal including design codes; generic development management policies and duplication of national policy and guidance needs to be avoided.
d. Plans should be subject to a single test of achieving sustainable development instead of the current tests for soundness and the duty to co-operate. There would be no Sustainability Appraisal and instead this would be replaced by a simplified process for assessing the environmental impact of plans.
e. Local plans would meet housing need by reference to a standard method for establishing housing requirements developed and set at a national level; this would mean distributing the national housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes annually, and one million homes by the end of the Parliament, taking into account local factors including constraints, opportunities and affordability. The Housing Delivery Test would stay.
f. Local plans would have to be brought forward by reference to a fixed 30 month statutory timescale with six stages and individual timings for each stage.
g. Local planning authorities would be under a duty to review their plans every 5 years; powers of intervention would remain such as the issuing of directions and preparation of a plan in consultation with local people.
h. Neighbourhood Plans to be retained but with more focus on form of development to reflect the proposals for Local Plans.
This is a refreshingly clear vision of what local plans might become and a digitalised system would be transformative for the user experience and public engagement. However, there are some big questions around how to encourage strategic planning across local authority boundaries for the bigger than local issues (the Government is open to suggestions), how in practice the “sustainable development” test would work and, linked to that, how robust the new environmental assessment process will be.
Equally as important, what will the effect of these promised changes be on current local plans? Without further incentives or assurances around their continuing effect in any transitional arrangements as we switch over to the new system, there must be a real concern they will be halted in their tracks.
2. Development Management
a. As indicated above, growth areas allocated in a local plan would have outline permission for the principle of development; details would be agreed and full planning permission achieved through a new reserved matters process, a local development order or possibly, on bigger sites, via a development consent order.
b. Renewal areas would benefit from a new statutory presumption in favour of development and would benefit from either a new automatic consenting route where specified forms of development meet design and other prior approval requirements, a faster planning application process or a local or neighbourhood development order.
c. Proposals which do not conform to the local plan in renewal and growth areas could still come forward, exceptionally, through a planning application process.
d. In protected areas, proposals will have to be brought forward via a planning application (subject to any permitted development rights or local development orders) and will be judged against the NPPF.
e. Generally, the development management process will be based on a more streamlined end-to-end process with firm deadlines for determination through a mix of:
ii. Data access;
iii. Shorter and standardised applications with reduced or limited supporting material;
iv. A standardised approach to technical information, conditions and developer contributions; and
v. Delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established.
f. The Government will build in incentives for prompt determination of applications by local planning authorities such as deemed approval of some applications or refunds of application fees.
g. The process will still be subject to call-in powers and appeals but the Government expects the volume of call-ins and appeals to reduce over time.
h. There will be encouragement for faster build out by making provision in local plans/design codes for a variety of development types by different builders (picking up on the conclusions of the Letwin Review).
This vision for the new development management system feels less clear: permission in principle and outline planning permission are used interchangeably in places as a consequence of land being allocated for growth; however, over and above this, there appears to be provision for a “full” planning permission through a new reserved matters system or local development orders or even development consent orders. Would this not remove a lot of the benefit of allocating land for growth? There is also a myriad of possible ways in which land allocated for renewal might gain consent and, in the meantime, we retain the current planning application process as well. If the Government is not careful it might add to the complexity of development management.
Certainly, we can all get on board with the much-needed streamlining of the development management process from end to end, with more standardisation, reducing the quantity of application documents and increased use of digital technology. However, resourcing this change will be key to its success.
3. Building better, building beautiful and sustainable places
Design and place-making is still high up on the Government’s political agenda. Proposals in this space include the following:
a. A National Model Design Code to be published in the Autumn which will work alongside the National Design Guide and the Manual for Streets; together these are expected to have a bearing on design of new communities and to guide decisions on development. (This will be an early entrant into the current planning system.)
b. Local guides and codes are to be prepared wherever possible to reflect local character but need to have input from the local community before they are given any weight in the planning process.
c. A new expert body will be set up to help local authorities make use of design guidance and codes, as well as performing a wider monitoring and challenge role for the sector.
d. The much-heralded “fast-track” for beauty will be achieved through:
i. The NPPF – which will have provision for schemes that comply with local design guides and codes to be approved quickly;
ii. Legislation to require that sites in growth areas should have a masterplan and site-specific code as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through allocation in the local plan; and
iii. Widening permitted development rights through the use of “pattern books” for different building types.
e. The NPPF will require targeted consideration of measures to support climate change mitigation and adaptation. (In our view, policy has been playing catch-up on climate change for some time – this is long overdue and should be welcomed.)
f. There will be a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts, stepping away from the current frameworks such as Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal and Environmental Impact Assessment. The key requirements for the new framework will be:
i. early consideration;
ii. clear and easy to understand; and
iii. avoidance of duplication.
A further consultation on this is expected in the Autumn.
g. The Government intends to review and update the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas, to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change.
h. Improvements to the energy efficiency standards for buildings will be brought forward to help meet the 2050 net zero commitment.
The intention here is clear and consistent with the recent focus of the Government on design and beauty in the planning system. The area with the most loaded questions is the promised framework for assessing environmental impact; in our view, there is clear scope to reduce the voluminous and highly technical nature of the current framework but now is not the time to water it down in terms of its ambit and its protective function. We will have to wait until the Autumn to find out more.
There are radical proposals for the funding of infrastructure:
a. Replace S106 obligations and the current version of Community Infrastructure Levy with a new Infrastructure Levy calculated as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory, nationally-set rate or rates (potentially variable by area).
b. This new levy will be charged on the final value of a development (or an assessed sales value where the development is not sold, e.g. build to rent) by reference to the rate in force when planning permission is granted. This would have to be paid before occupation.
c. Local authorities would be able to borrow against Infrastructure Levy revenues so that they could forward fund infrastructure.
d. The London Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy and similar strategic Community Infrastructure Levies in combined authorities could be retained.
e. The Infrastructure Levy Could be extended to capture changes of use without additional floor area and through permitted development.
f. The new levy would be extended to fund affordable housing. Allowance would be made for in-kind delivery on-site, which could be made mandatory where an authority has a requirement, a capability to deliver on site and wishes to do so. In those circumstances local authorities would be able to specify the form and tenure of the on-site provision. The Government anticipates that there would need to be a considered policy approach to the risk of imbalance between the value of the agreed in-kind delivery and the fluctuating nature of the levy liability, contingent as it will be on the development value.
g. Local authorities could be given more freedom on how they spend the levy.
There is a lot of detail to be worked through here. Setting the new levy at a level which does not deter development (and indeed land supply through the price paid by developers) will be key and a difficult issue to judge.
The Government will also need to be scrupulous in ensuring that affordable housing continues to come forward using levy funds and still comes forward as part of mixed and balanced communities.
The removal of the blunt and inflexible tool that we have come to love or hate in the form of CIL is welcome in our view and with it the removal of a considerable amount of confusing and time-consuming red tape. For practical reasons – not least delivering site-specific solutions for development – we are not sure we are witnessing the end of S106 obligations or an equivalent just yet but they will undoubtedly be slimmed down.
The consultation document ends with a few final proposals and thoughts from Government on the delivery of a new planning system:
a. As a first step there is a parallel consultation on changes to the current system including extension of Permission in Principle (by application to major development), the standard method for assessing local housing need, First Homes and supporting SME builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing. More here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/changes-to-the-current-planning-system
b. The Government sees a potential delivery role for development corporations.
c. The reforms are considered likely to reduce judicial review risk.
d. The need for resources and skills is recognised and will be addressed through a comprehensive strategy. In principle, the Government’s view is that the cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer. Funding may also be achieved through application fees and potentially the new infrastructure levy or- to a limited extent – general taxation.
e. The Government intends to strengthen the powers for local planning authorities to enforce against breach of planning control and provide incentives for enforcement action to be taken.
To end where this overview began, resources are key and a comprehensive strategy to ensure the sufficiency of funding and skills will be very welcome, as long as it does what it says on the tin. This will be vital to the success of the new system.
We know now what the Government wants to achieve. It is up to all of us in the sector to help them make it work and if parts of the system are worthy of retention for their “architectural” merit, to explain why that is, with reference to the Government’s objectives.
Simon Ricketts, 7 August 2020
Personal views, et cetera