Planning for Reform...Again!

Planning for Reform...Again!

On the 10th July 2015, the Government published its 'Productivity Plan' - a comprehensive statement of intent that sees planning facing yet more reforms aimed at greater deregulation and streamlining.

"This plan addresses particular challenges in the form of a planning system regarded by many as one of the most significant constraints facing the economy, bringing delay and inflexibility…"

Economics, Productivity and… Planning?

The transformation of planning is complete - it is now firmly embedded as an economic consideration in the Government's eyes. This was not always the case. Yet here it now sits alongside such unfamiliar bedfellows as workforce issues and trading and investment. Clearly, planning is now very much seen as a critical tool in delivering 'prosperity'. Whether this is right and whether it deserves to shoulder blame for the country's economic shortcomings are, of course, entirely different questions.

Nevertheless, attacking an "excessively strict" planning system, the Government looks to continue along the path it first laid back in 2011 with the Localism Act, followed by its cornerstone, the NPPF, in 2012. It is ironic that the current planning reforms can trace their origins back to a piece of legislation which has at its core the concept of 'localism'. On the one hand, there is talk of increased devolution of planning powers at a Mayoral level; on the other, the increased threat of designation for 'underperforming' LPAs. The latest picture emerging is one of greater centralisation, with a 'top down' approach at the fore which is at odds with the localism rhetoric used to champion the likes of Neighbourhood Planning. Perhaps localism is still important but not at the expense of productivity?

Areas Targeted for Reform

1. Local Plans

The dissatisfaction with the lack of Local Plans currently in place finds expression in the following measures where the Government will:

  • publish a deadline by which Local Plans must be in place;
  • publish league tables showing progress;
  • step in to intervene where they are not produced and arrange for them to be written 'in consultation' with local people;
  • introduce streamlining measures to reduce the length and process involved in implementing or amending a plan;
  • strengthen local authorities' duty to cooperate in respect of key housing and planning issues; and
  • produce guidance and consider how policy changes might support higher density housing around key commuter hubs and the release of redundant commercial land.
2. Zonal System for Brownfield Land

Perhaps the most eye-catching of all the proposals, this focuses on house building and seeks "an urban planning revolution on brownfield sites".

The Government will legislate to grant automatic permission in principle on brownfield sites identified on statutory registers.

This will introduce a zonal system bringing us in line with the likes of the United States with the hope that it will reduce delays and uncertainties.

As ever, the devil will be in the detail.

There will still be approval required for a limited number of "technical details". We await confirmation of precisely what such details may comprise and, equally, what if any guidance is issued to address viability issues - a traditional obstacle to brownfield development.

3. Speeding up Planning Decisions

The Government wants all planning decisions to be made on time and proposes:

  • legislation to bring major infrastructure projects with housing elements within the NSIP regime;
  • tightening the planning performance regime and expanding it to cover minor applications;
  • reducing net regulation on house builders; and
  • introducing a dispute resolution mechanism for s.106 agreements.
4. Increased Devolution of Planning Powers

The Government intends to proceed with the devolution of planning powers to the Mayor in London regarding wharves and sightlines and to bring forward proposals allowing the Mayor to call-in applications of 50 homes or more (the threshold is currently 150).

There are also plans to deregulate planning further.

The Government and Mayor will consider upward extensions and removing the requirement for permission for a limited number of stories up to the height of an adjoining building.

Planning devolution will not just take place in the capital.

The future Mayor of Greater Manchester will get powers to establish Development Corporations and promote CPOs.

5. Starter Homes and Right to Buy

As expected, the Government will pursue its controversial extension of the Right to Buy to tenants of Housing Associations via the Housing Bill.

It will also "re-focus" DCLG budgets towards "supporting low cost home ownership for first time buyers".

The Elephants in the Room

Despite their forceful presentation, the latest proposals do leave some glaring questions unanswered.

Land supply is critical to addressing housing shortfall and the zoning of brownfield land alone is not the solution. The future of Green Belt land remains a political hot potato but a failure to address it as part of the wider house building question, runs the risk of undermining the effectiveness of these reforms.

Similarly, at a more practical level, there still appears to be little formal recognition of the insufficient resourcing of many LPAs. Are designation and Government intervention in Local Plans the answer? Planning decision making is highlighted as a key component in the latest streamlining process. However, against a backdrop of dwindling resources and increasing workloads, will casualties on the front line blunt the impact of the Government's latest productivity tools?

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