The future of the planning system in England

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee have recently published their report ‘The Future of the Planning System in England’. This wide ranging report makes recommendations on various aspects of the Government’s proposed changes to the planning system, including those set out in the ‘Planning for the Future White Paper’ published last August. Summarised below are the headlines from the report and our initial observations.

Zonal proposals for local plans to designate three types of land

This issue is arguably the most substantial change proposed to the current planning system set out in the white paper – with the Government suggesting that local plans should take a zonal approach. It is proposed that land would be designated into three categories: growth, renewal, and protection. The Committee are not convinced by this approach, stating:

“Overall, we are unpersuaded the Government’s zoning-based approach will produce a quicker, cheaper, and democratic planning system. The Government should reconsider the case for the three areas proposal. Any new proposals can be considered in detail if the Planning Bill is published in draft form and we undertake pre-legislative scrutiny, as we recommend.” (Page 99 Paragraph 2)

There are numerous potential issues with this approach, many of which stem from the lack of detail as to how it would operate. In the report, Pocket Living are noted to have expressed concerns that were the same level of evidence and assessments currently needed for outline planning permission required under the new system would “slow down the preparation of local plans”. This would be contrary to the wider aim to speed up the preparation of Local Plans.

A further concern expressed to us by clients is that such an approach would also front load costs for developers, with no certainty that a site will secure allocation as a growth area.

Planning briefs for particular sites

The report proposes that should the Government continue with the three areas approach that:

“Local authorities should set out detailed plans for growth and renewal areas which specify heights of buildings, density of development, minimum parking standards, access to retail, education, transport, health facilities and other local amenities.

“This may be by way of a planning brief for particular sites, which may be undertaken subsequent to the local planning process and which is subjected to detailed consultation with local people. Developers that propose developments in accordance with such planning briefs would then be invited to undertake such developments. In all such areas, local authorities must be enabled to prevent overdevelopment, particularly in areas of existing housing such as suburban settings. Any proposal deviating from the standards proposed at a local level would otherwise be subjected to the current full planning application process.” (Pages 99 and 100 Paragraph 3)

This approach would introduce a further stage of policy development for particular sites after the adoption of Local Plans. While it allows for additional certainty on acceptable developments, it would result in additional time and resources being required for this work to be undertaken. It is suggested that the current full planning application process would be available for developments that deviate from this approach, or presumably those that come forwards in advance of such a planning brief being prepared.

However, if such an approach is taken, it is questionable as to what savings could be made in terms of time or cost.

The timescales for Local Plan production

The Committee do not consider the proposed 30-month timeframe for the development of Local Plan’s to be sufficient and consider it to be too short for preparing from scratch. Instead it is suggested the 30-month timescale should be extended for the initial production of Local Plans. However, the Committee also propose that undertaking quick updates to Local Plans every two years should be ‘straightforward’ (Page 100, Paragraph 5).

The 30-month timescale planned by the white paper has always appeared to be challenging. The recognition that this should be extended appears sensible. However, it is unclear from the report what evidence supports the proposal for quick updates to Local Plans every two years, and what meaningful changes would fall within the scope of such quick updates.

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Public involvement

The Committee identify concerns with the proposal that the second stage of public involvement in the Local Plan process would be moved to happen simultaneously with submission to the Secretary of State. Noting that public acceptance of increased importance for Local Plans requires them to have credibility as an accurate reflection of public views, the report suggests that instead public consultation on the draft Local Plan should take place before submission to the Secretary of State – as is currently the case.

The suggestion that on the one hand public engagement would be enhanced, whilst on the other the preparation of Local Plans would be sped up was met with substantial opposition when the white paper was first released, and it is not surprising to see the Committee push back on this.

The report also proposes that:

“The Government must commission research about the extent of public involvement in the planning system. This should precede the collection from local authorities and publishing of statistics about public involvement in Local Plans and in individual planning applications. Such research would give a clearer picture of the current situation and, in particular, at which point in the process people are most engaged.” (Pages 101 and 102, Paragraph 10)

Duty to cooperate

It’s proposed that the much-maligned duty to cooperate be abolished. However, currently there are no proposals on how cross boundary matters and sub-national planning would be undertaken. Picking up on this issue the report suggests:

“The Government should only abolish the duty to cooperate when more effective mechanisms have been put in place to ensure cooperation. Whilst the duty to cooperate remains in place, the Government should give combined authorities the statutory powers to oversee the cooperation of local authorities in their area.

“Longer-term reforms could include greater use of joint plans, of plans overseen by mayors and combined authorities, and of development corporations. The Government should seek to apply the lessons from successful strategic plans devised by local authorities in certain parts of the country in devising more effective mechanisms for strategic planning.” (Page 101, Paragraph 9)

The suggestion of a statutory role for combined authorities in overseeing the duty to cooperate would appear to be politically challenging, given that not all combined authorities have sought planning powers due to the associated political issues, such as the West Midlands for example.

It is also unclear how this proposal would work in practice, and careful thought will need to be given as to how combined authorities would make decisions on issues where individual member authorities were not cooperating.

Focusing on the proposed longer-term reforms, it is unclear what meaningful change would be achieved by the suggested mechanisms, given that all of these options already exist.

Additionally, in the cases of joint plans and of plans overseen by mayors and combined authorities, there are high profile examples where these approaches haven’t worked:

  • The West of England Joint Spatial Plan
  • Greater Exeter Strategic Plan,
  • The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.

It is also interesting to see no reference to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework, which presents a new approach to planning at the sub-national scale. The announcement of this however, postdates the giving of evidence by witnesses to the Committee which may explain its omission.

The housing formula

The report supports the decision by the Government to abandon the proposed revised approach to calculating housing need set out in consultation, undertaken in August 2020 ‘Changes to the current planning system’.

However, the Committee also question the subsequent approach which is now in force. This includes a 35 per cent uplift for the urban local authorities in the top 20 cities and urban centres list, as set out in revised planning practice guidance published in December 2020.

It was recommended that additional information is required about how this approach will work in practice and for further explanation by the Government as to the rationale for the proposed uplift. The report also calls for reconsideration on the increase proposed for London:

“In light of its lack of feasibility, especially given the need to protect important Metropolitan Open Land, and the potential impact of COVID on patterns of commuting and work”.

Despite the Government having already officially provided an answer as to why they had amended the standard method in December 2020, the Committee has still set out that more of an explanation is required.

The rationale behind the seemingly arbitrary 35 per cent urban uplift remains questionable. It is already being challenged by Bradford City & Metropolitan District Council who set out in their draft Regulation 18 Preferred Options Plan in February 2021 that they did not consider it feasible to meet the increased housing requirement due to a lack of brownfield sites and strategic constraints, such as the Green Belt.

Concerns are also raised about how the Government will ensure that its new approach will not lead to a significant reduction in the construction of new homes in the Midlands and North. The report goes on to suggest that in specific local authorities identified as commuter areas, the Government should consider the use of residence-based earnings rather than the general approach of using workplace-based earnings in response to concerns raised about the impact on affordability of higher earners in such areas.

The report calls for the commission and use of new household projections to take account of the Office for Statistics Regulation’s recent report into ONS population estimates. This highlighted that projections for small cities with large student populations had tended to be larger than local evidence suggested.

New household projections should also take account of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also suggests the inclusion of properties that could be converted and repaired, as well as the availability of brownfield sites, environmental and other constraints and the wish to level up should all be reflected in the standard method.

While a more sophisticated revised approach would be welcome and may be seen as being ‘fairer’, it is unclear how such a method would gain political support. Further push back is expected from politicians representing areas that would see a marked increase in their housing requirement, given the response to previous attempts to revise the standard method.

Despite supporting some form of revised standard method, it’s also stated that local authorities should be permitted to undertake their own assessment of housing need if they disagree with the nationally set figures. In such circumstances these assessments would then be evaluated by the Planning Inspectorate.

The attraction of an exception approach that allows a route to an alternative figure is understandable, as it allows a route out of accusations that housing figures are being imposed.

However, such an approach would need to be genuinely only applicable in the most exceptional of circumstances. The bar for justifying such an approach would have to be set suitably high, ensuring the overall delivery of the Government’s 300,000 homes a year target is not undermined. There are also implications for such an approach on the timely delivery of Local Plans, as any suitably robust scrutiny of individually proposed housing need figures, as was the case before the introduction of the standard method, is an inevitably lengthy process.

Further possible consequences could include the requirement to redistribute housing need, as is currently done through the duty to cooperate, or to increase the overall national target to account for places that justify a lower target if the overall delivery of the 300,000 homes target is not to be compromised.

How to deliver new homes

On the topic of the 300,000 homes a year target, the report echo’s the Public Accounts Committee’s calls for greater clarity on how it will be delivered: both by tenure and location. It further requests that the evidential basis for the target should be published. Beyond just publishing the current standard method results, it seems unlikely the Government will be able to answer this without implementing the white paper proposal to set binding housing targets for each local authority.

The Committee suggest the Government should use a series of carrots and sticks to quicken the pace of completing planning permissions. Controversially, they recommend the introduction of time limits for the completion of construction and non-financial penalties. They propose an 18-month time limit for work commencing on site following discharge of conditions, with the threat of revoking planning permission.

They also suggest a further 18-month period to complete development, after which while taking account of size and complexity of sites, plus the need for infrastructure to be delivered by other parties, local authorities would be able to levy full council tax for each housing unit which has not been completed.

Such an approach would need to be very carefully administered. While the proposal does note that size, complexity and reliance on others would be taken into consideration, a blanket 18 months would be unworkable for large sites. A more considered approach could set thresholds based on delivery to agreed timescales. This would also need to recognize that other factors outside the developer’s control can delay delivery; such as poor weather, lack of suitably qualified builders and the availability of materials.

There is also a proposed introduction of a new C2R class for retirement communities to provide clarity in the planning process for such developments. It suggests that evidence demonstrating why brownfield sites alone are insufficient to deliver the 300,000 housing unit target should be published to address hostility to the target.

Curiously, the Committee also calls for Local Plans to be able to prioritise the use of brownfield sites for development ahead of other sites, which they already able to and in many cases do.

Omissions

It’s reported the white paper omitted a range of important issues that should be considered in any changes to the planning system, including the lack of consideration of non-housing issues. This is an issue that we have previously highlighted, for example in this article published last year regarding the lack of consideration of the logistics sector in the white paper. Other examples highlighted include the proposed reforms to environmental impact assessments and proposals for biodiversity net gain in the Environment Bill; addressing climate change and creating sustainable development; bolstering sustainable transport; and the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Land capture and the funding of infrastructure

The Committee are critical of the lack of progress made on land value capture. They also question the suggestion that Section 106 agreements need replacing, stating:

“The Government must clarify how it will replicate the binding nature of Section 106 agreements and which parts of the approach will be retained. If they cannot be easily replicated, especially without creating additional complexity, then we recommend retaining Section 106 agreements.” (Page 105 Paragraph 25)

Rather than implement the proposed national Infrastructure Levy, the report suggests that further consideration should be given to the proposals in the 2017 review of the Community Infrastructure Levy. If a national Infrastructure Levy is progressed, they recommend that:

  • It should be a localized rate set to reflect local land values;
  • The Government should clarify who will set such rates and whether they will differ by local authority or some other sub-national area;
  • It is guaranteed that there will be no reduction in the amount of affordable housing, including social housing delivered;
  • It is recognized that the Levy will not be able to raise enough money to pay for all infrastructure, especially large scale sub-regional and regional investments; and,
  • Inequalities will need to be addressed through the redistribution of the Levy and through increases in infrastructure funding from central Government.

With regards to the level at which rates should be set, it’s worth noting within some local authority areas land values vary significantly, with certain local authorities already setting differential Community Infrastructure Levy rates reflecting these variations.

However, issues have also been encountered with the uptake of the current Community Infrastructure Levy in authorities with relatively low land values where the cost of administering the collection of the Levy can outweigh the potential income derived from collecting it. As such finding a suitable level at which to administer any new form of Levy may be difficult.

Resources and skills

The report recommends that a further £500m, to cover a four-year period, should be secured to support local planning authorities with the additional work that will arise from the Planning Bill before it is implemented. Recognizing that the proposed reforms will also require an increase in planning staff, particularly with specialist skills such as design, the Committee propose a resource and skills strategy for the planning system prior to any primary legislation.

Design and beauty

Although describing the Government’s focus on beauty as being laudable, the Committee make clear that it should not detract from other important aspects of design. It suggests that design policy needs to

“reflect the broadest meaning of design, encompassing function, place-making, and the internal quality of the housing as a place to live in, alongside its external appearance. Given the problems with defining beauty, and to ensure a wider approach to design, there should also not be a ‘fast track for beauty’.” (Page 107 Paragraph 28

While the Committee’s concerns with the proposed ‘fast track for beauty’ are understandable, it seems unlikely that Government will back away from this. Last year they appointed Nicholas Boys-Smith – who was co-chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission which proposed the concept – to establish a new design body, tasked with driving up design standards and supporting local communities to produce design codes defining beautiful design in each community.  

The report also calls for clarity on how the public will able to offer views on beauty and design, which are often very localized focusing on a single site, street, or building, and therefore not necessarily suitable for incorporation within a local plan covering an entire local authority. The Committee are particularly concerned about this given the proposed reduction in opportunities for the public to comment on single planning applications.

Green Belt

The Committee call for a review of the purposes of the Green Belt, including:

“Whether it continues to serve that purpose, how the public understand it, what should be criteria for inclusion, and what additional protections might be appropriate.” (Page 107 Paragraph 29)

This is a welcome proposal given that since the establishment of Green Belts was first proposed in the UK in 1935, there has been limited consideration by successive Government’s as to whether or not Green Belt as a general policy continues to achieve the purposes that it was established for, or conversely undermines sustainable development through consequences that were not foreseen when it was first proposed.  

The Government should identify local authorities where reviews of the Green Belt are particularly urgent, the report suggests, whilst noting it should ensure sufficient funding is provided to support the decontamination of brownfield sites to relieve pressure on Green Belts where it is possible to do so.

Environmental and historical protections

The Committee recommend the Historic Environment Records dataset should be put on a statutory basis and that the merits of providing additional protections for other sites, such as those of local interest and World Heritage Sites, should be considered. They also endorse that an assessment is published of the impacts of the proposed changes on historic buildings and sites, including undesignated and future archaeology, and on heritage sites in growth areas.

Clarification, according to the report, should be given to how flood risk is defined in the planning system, including setting out how this will take account of climate change and the fit with wider flooding policy.

The committee also recommend that the planning system should pay greater attention to the importance of green spaces and wildlife near to homes. They advise that sustainability assessments should be retained and ensure that the operation of Environmental Impact Assessments on the planning system is given further consideration ahead of the Planning Bill.

Conclusions

Given the fundamental role of the planning system in shaping our daily lives, it is not surprising that the report covers a substantial range of topics, even allowing for the significant list of omissions that the Committee highlight were not addressed in the white paper.

However, to what degree the suggestions and critiques set out in the report will be reflected in the Government’s next steps is unclear; the Government are not obligated to accept the Committee’s recommendations. What we do know is that the Government intend to publish a Planning Bill during the current session of Parliament as set out in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. It was clear from the white paper that the Government envisage a fundamental reform of the planning system, although whether or not this will survive significant pressure from backbench MPs is yet to be seen.

Should you wish to discuss any of the topics raised please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

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