Planning reform, the tale continues...
Today the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report was published setting out the Committee’s findings and thoughts on the Government’s proposals to reform the planning system as outlined in the White Paper published in August 2020 “Planning for the Future”. The Committee Report, titled The Future of the Planning System in England, is published following an Inquiry, which took place last autumn.
As many will recall the White Paper sought to overhaul what it considered to be an outdated planning system and reform the way in which the Country can deliver high quality sustainable, and beautiful, homes that communities need in a quicker and more streamlined way with less red tape. However, despite many agreeing the planning system needs to change the paper received extensive criticism and concern from the industry and as a result 44,000 responses were submitted to the consultation last year. There is a growing revolt by the Tory backbenchers, led by Theresa May to the Government’s Planning Bill, despite it not yet being published.
Given the strong public and planning sector interest the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee decided to hold an Inquiry to inform the development of Government planning policy. Their aims were to assess the Government’s proposed reforms and to take stock of the planning system. The paper published today is thorough, well informed, considered and makes important recommendations most of which reflect the reactions from the industry when the White Paper was published last summer.
The key headlines from the Committee report are as below, but in effect, if followed by the Government boils down to a fundamental re-write of the White Paper to be supported by significant review, evidence gathering and consultations.
Three Areas Proposal (renewal, protection and growth)
The Committee was unpersuaded that such a zoning proposal would achieve the aims of creating a faster, cheaper and more democratic planning system. If the Government is minded to continue with this approach then they should actually consider additional zones including one which is a “highly protected area” to enable development in rural areas to continue whilst ensuring a shield for some areas, and sub areas within the “renewal area “ where permission in principle would not apply and planning permission would be required.
There also needs to be further details of these areas and evidence on how they would function, particularly on the level of detail required in local plans, the impact on vital infrastructure and who will determine if local plan requirements have been met, particularly in growth and renewal areas.
The Committee also noted that Local Authorities should also, through the production of planning briefs or similar, which are open for formal consultation, for particular individual sites, set out its vision 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 amenities.
Public Engagement and Reforms to Local Plans
The suggested shift for consultation from individual planning applications back to the local plan stage, has not been accepted by the Committee who contend that this will reduce public involvement and engagement and therefore the default position should remain for all interested parties to be able to comment on applications. Their opinion is that without an outlet for citizen engagement there is a real fear that people will resort more extensively to legal routes on applications.
Interestingly, the Committee favour the retention of virtual planning committees to sit alongside exploring other methods of interaction such as citizen assemblies and holding meetings in person. This runs contrary to the recent announcement to ensure that all meetings are open to the public.
The statutory obligation to have a local plan in place is welcomed, but there should be phasing of such rather than a 30 month cut off to provide sufficient opportunity for statutory consultees to comment on the plans. They have suggested that updates of local plans should take place every two years and the duty to cooperate should only be abolished when more effective mechanisms are in place.
The revised approach (announced in December 2020) which seeks to preserve the existing methodology whilst having an urban uplift for 20 towns and cities is, in the view of the Committee the correct approach, but additional clarification is sought on how this increased housing demand in these areas can be met noting existing restrictions and constraints.
It is accepted that housing delivery needs to be sped up if the Government’s 300,000 housing target is to be met through a mixture of carrot and stick approach. It is suggested that there should be a limit of 18 months from the discharge of conditions for work to commence on site and if work has not progressed to the Council’s satisfaction then the permission can be revoked. A further time period of 18 months to be provided for completion after which time the Authority should be able to levy full council tax for each unit not completed.
It is interesting that these time limits do not appear to reflect thresholds of development and for some major and strategic sites, build out rates are likely to exceed the 18 months. It is important also to reflect that there is no set definition of what would constitute to “the Council’s satisfaction” which is likely to lead to differences of approach and political intervention across the Country and therefore a lack of consistency. Furthermore, many sites (approximately 86%) that receive planning permission are not secured by house builders and there should be flexibility to accommodate market circumstances.
The report recommends that a timetable for when First Homes will become available should be laid out and to reflect the different types of affordable housing in different areas, Local Authorities should have discretion over what proportion of houses built under a S106 much be First Homes.
Whilst there is no objection to the proposed replacement of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), the ability to impose S106 agreements should remain to protect against the potential loss of affordable housing. Mayoral Infrastructure Levies are suggested to remain in place.
It is recommended that additional funding of £500,000 over four years should be sought from the Treasury to secure the additional resources, including in specialist skills such as design, which will be required to deliver the aspiration of the Bill, and this should be guaranteed in advance of the formal introduction of the Bill.
Design and Beauty
The improvement on the quality of design is welcomed but should consider a broader definition of design than one espoused in the White Paper to ensure that innovation is not stifled and the subjective nature of ‘beauty’ is recognized. It is suggested that there should not be a fast track for beauty given the problems in defining beauty and the need to ensure a wider approach to design.
Green Belt, and environmental and historical protections
It is suggested that there should be a review of the purpose of the Green Belt to ascertain if it still serves it’s originally intended purpose, how the public understand it, what the criteria for inclusion should be and whether any additional protections may be appropriate.
In terms of Metropolitan Open Land, the same level of protection should be applied to Green Belts.
In terms of historic sites, the Committee recommended that the Government publish an assessment of the impact on its proposed changes on historic buildings and sites, which should include the impact on undesignated and future archaeology, and on heritage sites situated in growth areas.
The Committee recommended that the planning system should place greater attention to the importance of green spaces and to wildlife near people’s residences and the Government should reconsider the retention of sustainability assessments.
So what will happen next? I thinks it’s safe to say there are some very interesting times ahead with some big decisions to be made over the coming weeks.
There are some easy wins without a significant overhaul, which would represent a significant benefit to our profession such as additional resource in Local Authorities, reinstating virtual meetings, heightening the importance of design and ensuring local plans are kept up to date. This would leave those challenging areas (such as zoning and the Green Belt review) to be picked up at a later date following meaningful and robust evidence gathering and consultation with all the different parties. But of course, any implementation is only possible with significant investment by the Treasury and I question whether politicians will be prepared to dip into their pockets to deliver a ‘watered down’ version of the White Paper, without it encompassing all those key, but difficult, issues.
There is though a very clear direction of travel from Government that housing delivery needs to be sped up, policies need to be up to date and we need more housing. This, all in step with effective citizen engagement and collaboration into the planning process. Even if we don’t have a finalised version of this document, I anticipate these missives coming through other mechanisms.