Long-awaited reforms to the planning system in England were finally unveiled on 6 August. While previous housing secretaries, of which there have been many, have merely tinkered with the edges, Robert Jenrick’s efforts appear to be about to turn the system on its head.
The glossy 43-page consultation document, ‘Planning for the Future’ certainly contains proposals which should be welcomed, such as bringing the process of community engagement kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Jenrick wants to move away from laminated signs hastily affixed to lampposts and statutory notices at the back of local newspapers (which everyone has stopped reading anyway).
The document acknowledges the efforts made by developers to take their consultations online during Covid-19, and the Keeble Brown team can certainly attest to the benefits of holding Zoom meetings for public consultations.
The developing PropTech industry will almost certainly be playing a key role in the planning system of the future. We have already seen a glimpse of this through fledgling start-ups like givemyview, which asks the public to shape their neighbourhood by swiping left and right; and uses strategic social media advertising to capture the often hard to reach millennial generation.
But aside from a desire to modernise planning, will ‘Planning for the Future’ really speed up housebuilding and detangle the mess of the current system?
The most visible change will be a move towards a zonal planning system. Jenrick notes that the current model is ‘discretionary rather than rules based – nearly all decisions to grant consent are undertaken on a case by case basis – rather than determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done.’
Instead of considering individual planning applications, local councils will be expected to produce Local Plans which designate their land into one of three categories, similar to a traffic light system:
• Growth: Areas for substantial development where planning permission can be granted automatically if the plans are compliant with the ‘forms and types’ identified in the council’s Local Plan. It is expected that growth areas will be used for new towns and urban extensions; former industrial sites; and potentially land surrounding universities.
• Renewal: Areas deemed ‘suitable for development’. These areas are likely to already have some development so will be allocated for small scale development. The government has indicated these areas could be earmarked for ‘gentle densification’ and includes development in town centres and around villages.
• Protected: Areas which will be subject to ‘more stringent development controls.’ These areas will be land currently designated as Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Conservation Areas, Local Wildlife Sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space.
The new Local Plans are expected to be much less detailed than current versions, simply outlining a core set of standards and requirements for development. The Duty to Co-operate, which often results in lengthy tussles between councils, will be abolished, as will the requirement for soundness, environmental and viability assessments.
The government hopes that this will significantly speed up the time it takes to prepare and adopt a Local Plan. ‘Planning for the Future’ estimates that the average Local Plan took 450 days to complete in 2009, rising to an eye-watering 815 days by 2019. Instead, local councils will now be expected to finish preparing their Local Plan in just 30 months with sanctions for those who fail to meet the deadline. Yet with only 50% of local authorities currently having an up to date Local Plan, and the government proving woefully ineffective at enforcing its own deadlines, this may be wishful thinking to say the least.
Yet perhaps most worrying for the housing sector, is the proposed abolition of Section 106. When introduced by the Blair government in 2001, developer contributions delivered around 2,000 of the 33,000 affordable homes – the rest being funded by grants from central government. Fast forward to 2020, and S106 is now responsible for almost half of affordable homes.
Although Jenrick has insisted that the new Infrastructure Levy will deliver just as many, if not more, affordable homes as S106, it is hard to see this happening in reality. Councils are expected to be given more ‘flexibility’ with the new Levy – whereas S106 always went towards housing and CIL towards a new school, there will be no requirement for councils to ringfence contributions in this way. Whether you get beautifully tarmacked roads or affordable homes for young families may be down to the ideological persuasion of your local council.
Developments of fewer than 50 homes could also be exempt from paying the new levy altogether, which has unsurprisingly irked housing campaigners. Pete Apps of Inside Housing has suggested some unscrupulous developers could deliver a 300-home development as six tranches of 50 homes unless there are robust safeguards in place to close this loophole.
There is no doubt that the current planning bureaucracy is failing. However, while ‘Planning for the Future’ certainly ticks the box for ‘removing red tape’, people are already asking how these proposals will facilitate more affordable housing, stronger communities and increased economic activity in the regions, especially the north. Or, in the government’s own language, is this really a plan to ‘build back better’ and ‘level up’ Britain?