Radical reform in the UK planning system

With the future of planning system up for reform and consultation open until the end of October, how can we best contribute to the plan for the future?


  • Christopher Balch

24 September 2020

The government’s White Paper Planning for the future aims to bring about radical reform of the planning system in England. Consultation responses are sought by 29 October 2020. Informed by input from a taskforce of leading built environment practitioners, there can be little doubt about the priority being given to planning reform by a government that wants construction to be a key part of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its levelling-up agenda.

Those of us involved in planning are used to politicians taking aim at the planning system. It is an easy target for anyone seeking simple solutions to deep-seated challenges – most notably the intergenerational inequality caused by the shortage of new homes that denies young people the opportunity to get on the home-ownership ladder or access affordable housing.

Few would argue that successive reforms of planning by governments have made life easier for planning and development professionals. All governments promise a more streamlined, efficient and effective system for providing land of the right quantity and quality for development in the right place, at the right time. The White Paper invites consultees to provide 3 words that encapsulate our planning system. I would offer ‘complex, cumbersome’ and ‘controversial’.

“All governments promise a more streamlined, efficient and effective system for providing land for development of the right quantity and quality in the right place at the right time”

But no one can doubt that planning is an essential tool for managing the use of land to create good places and to mediate between public and private interests. A key role of planning is finding the right balance between competing objectives – economic, social or community, and environmental – to provide sustainable development and deal with the challenge of climate change. This necessarily brings land and development interests into conflict with residents, conservation groups, and environmental campaigners, not to mention a whole raft of statutory consultees. It’s a heady mix, especially when you add local and national politics and the strictures of due process overseen by an adversarial legal system.

Managing the changes made to the places where people live, work and play is never going to be easy across a multi-layered democratic society where power is distributed unevenly based on preferential access to resources and influence. One of the aims of the proposed reforms is to open the planning system to more voices and to remove barriers to competition in the development industry where housebuilding is dominated by a small number of major players. Digitalisation, open data and PropTech are seen as key drivers for change.

The White Paper outlines 3 pillars and 24 specific proposals to deliver a radically reformed planning system.

Pillar 1: Planning for development

The White Paper proposes to simplify Local Plans, which will become map-based documents providing for nationally determined housebuilding targets through the identification of the following key points.
  • Growth areas: for substantial developments such a major urban extensions, new settlements or major regeneration sites.
  • Renewal areas: covering existing built up areas where smaller scale development or ‘gentle densification’ would be encouraged.
  • Protected areas: covering important environmental or cultural assets such as green belt, National Parks, AONBs.

The White Paper envisages ‘radically and profoundly re-invented engagement’ in Local Plans through digital technologies to enable a much wider participation in the plan-making process which would be statutorily limited to 30 months. Front loading public engagement is seen as critical because growth areas will confer the equivalent of outline planning consent on land so designated, while land in renewal areas would carry a presumption in favour of development. The Local Plan will be expected to specify the key parameters of development – scale, mix, height, and density – appropriate at an area or site-specific basis, and development proposals will need to comply with these requirements.

The vision is for a slimmed down Local Plan that clearly sets out where development will take place using interactive mapping technologies supported by a clear set of rules. Gone will be the pages and pages of policy requirements as the government seeks to replace discretion with certainty in planning decision making. The approval process for Local Plans will be streamlined, reducing the need for the extensive evidence base required by the tests of soundness, which will be abolished. Instead, plans will need to pass a sustainability test and a less onerous but more focused environmental assessment.

While the White Paper envisages much greater public consultation at the plan-making stage, it proposes simplified procedures for development management, with much reduced opportunity for local involvement in the detail. This represents a significant shift as most engagement in the planning process only occurs when confronted by a specific application. Achieving effective public input into plan-making where the key decisions are to be made will be a big challenge. Provided that proposals can demonstrate compliance with the national and local policy framework they will progress rapidly to detailed approval with only limited scope for public input. To assist in speeding up the processing of applications, the government proposes maximising the use of digital technology, with proposals presented in a machine-readable format. Strict time limits for decisions will be set and local planning authorities face penalties for failing to comply.

Applicants will face far fewer onerous requirements in terms of the information required to validate applications. Environmental assessment requirements will be expected to focus on key issues and applicants will be limited to a maximum 50-page planning statement. The expectation is that this will substantially reduce the time and cost involved in securing planning consent. With around 9 out of every 10 planning applications currently being approved it is doubtful whether the approval rate will substantially increase. Indeed, a more rules-based approach to assessing applications could result in more refusals, although with clearer requirements applicants will only have themselves to blame.

Pillar 2: Planning for beautiful and sustainable places

The government is seeking to raise the bar in terms of the quality of design for new development through a Framework for quality comprising 3 documents: a national design guide, a national model design code and a revised manual for streets. In addition, local design guidance and codes prepared through Local and Neighbourhood Plans or by applicants will become binding on new development. The White Paper places considerable emphasis on controlling the spatial arrangement and physical appearance of new development, which suggests a return to a more deterministic view of the ability of planning to create high quality places. To help provide this, local authorities will be required to have a chief officer for design and placemaking, and the resourcing and skill base of planning teams will be strengthened through funding, principally from landowners and developers. The White Paper seeks a transition to a more visual planning system and is illustrated with images of exemplar urban and architectural design. Cars have been largely expunged from this future vision, appearing only in around 10% of the illustrations. Developments that provide beauty reflecting local character, will be fast tracked through the approval process with greater reliance on pattern book development.

Alongside better-quality design, the National Planning Policy Framework will centre planning’s role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and providing net environmental gain. The White Paper promises to protect and enhance our most valuable and important habitats and species while introducing a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts. Similarly, there is a promise to conserve and enhance our historic buildings and areas with updated guidance on how to secure their adaptation for use in the 21st century.

Ambitious improvements in energy standards for new buildings are proposed, to meet the government’s commitment to net zero by 2050. This will be achieved through the introduction of the Future Homes Standard which is intended to ensure that no new home will require expensive retrofitting.

Pillar 3: Planning for infrastructure and connected places

For the surveying profession and the land development industry, significant changes to the taxation of development gains are put forward. To speed up securing planning approval it proposes to abolish section 106 contributions and locally-based Community Infrastructure Levy and replace them with a nationally determined Infrastructure Levy. It suggests that this will be based on a nationally set rate or rates as a fixed proportion of completed development values. A minimum threshold will be set based on average build costs and a fixed allowance for land to protect marginal development schemes from having to contribute.

In contrast to the current arrangement payment will become due on occupation to assist development cashflows, with local authorities able to borrow against anticipated receipts to ensure that necessary physical and social infrastructure is provided alongside new development. The ambition is that the new arrangements will provide at least as much, if not more, funding than current arrangements. Developers will be able to make in-kind contributions towards their Infrastructure Levy by constructing discounted first homes or affordable housing. Local authorities will be given greater discretion over how the Infrastructure Levy, which will be collected locally, is to be spent.

Significantly, the land development industry is seen as the goose that will lay the golden eggs necessary to fund the operation of the reformed planning system both through planning fees and top-slicing Infrastructure Levy to meet the costs of the streamlined and digitised plan-led system.

"Significantly, the land development industry is seen as the goose that will lay the golden eggs"

Unsurprisingly the White Paper has brought to the fore concerns over further deregulation of the planning system. Charges of it being a ‘developers’ charter’ that will produce ‘slums of the future’ and lead to the end of local democracy, have been made and coalitions are being formed to oppose the proposals.

For those looking for detailed answers about how a reformed planning system might operate, the White Paper falls short. But if you want to engage in a debate about the future shape and direction of planning in England the government is seeking your views. Planning could be at an inflexion point if the government’s proposals are carried through, although anyone with experience of past reforms will know that there is a tendency for radical change to be watered down, particularly when the interests of lobby groups and politicians collide. Submit your feedback on the consultation here by 29 October and watch this space!

Related competencies include: Housing management and policy, Housing strategy and provision, Planning and development management, Spatial planning policy and infrastructure

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