Planning for the Future

It was billed as the “most ambitious” reform of the planning rules since the Second World War, and on paper it might not be simple rhetoric.

Today we got an idea of how the planning system will change. The emphasis is now heavily on the plan-making process, with the Government keen to bring communities on board with planning earlier. Whether that happens, and whether this will see the end of NIMBYism is debatable, but you can’t fault the ambition of the Government to get things done.

Here are our top 5 takeaways from today’s planning reforms:

  1. Land will be designated as ‘For Growth’, ‘For Renewal’ and ‘For Protection’.

Local Plans will be overhauled to focus almost exclusively on allocations of land. This means starting again for many, with a focus specifically on where land can be developed – and how quickly.

New local plans will be introduced by the end of the Parliament (2022). These will be online by default, set out as a map of the area with land colour-coded so that all assigned land for development or protection in the area can be reviewed easily, and the type of development required there understood. This could actually be quite a good idea and will remove the need to trawl through hundreds of pages of documents to find details about a site.

Local Plans will also be largely focussed on land allocation rather than specific policies – the NPPF will be the primary source of development management policy, with development management policy contained in the Local Plan restricted to clear and necessary site or area-specific requirements, including broad height limits, scale and/or density limits for land included in Growth areas and Renewal areas, established through the accompanying text.

  1. Growth land will be “automatically allowed”, while Renewal land will have “permission in principle”, balancing speed with checks.

‘Growth’ land will be given automatic outline permission as part of local plans, with permission in principle given to ‘Renewal’ sites. So no one will ever have to argue on the principle of development ever again, right? Robert Jenrick today said that objections to applications on ‘Growth’ sites will effectively be meaningless, so the scrutiny on local plans – which are usually hated by their communities anyway – will be significantly higher.

It seems that the idea is to get the public ‘bought in’ to development at a much earlier stage – through consultation on local plans, neighbourhood plans, and design guides. How the relationship between Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans will work is unclear, but with the NPPF the default for planning policy it is possible that local policies will come out of the neighbourhood plans instead. And with the potential for ‘street-level’ policy, including on design, we’re looking at a whole new range of specifics that developers will need to consider. Simplicity isn’t guaranteed.

Now, those of us who have sat through a planning committee session and seen a site which already has outline planning permission refused on the detail might be sceptical about how this will work. It remains to be seen whether the threat that automatic rebate of planning fees if an appeal is successful will be successful. One suspects not.

The potential shape of the brave new world is indicated by the concurrent consultation on extending the current ‘permission in principle’ regime from only 10 homes to 150 homes. Currently, 84% of planning applications for residential development are for schemes of 10-150 homes and they deliver almost half of all housing permissions each year. This single proposal, if implemented, will deliver a far more immediate change than the re-allocation of land through the plan process.

  1. The death knell for affordable housing?

Goodbye Section 106, hello Infrastructure Levy. 50% of affordable housing today is provided through S106 agreements, and the Government claims strongly that at least as much on-site affordable housing will be provided through the new system. The new Infrastructure Levy, which replaces S106 and CIL, will be based upon a flat-rate, valued-based charge, set nationally, at either a single rate, or at area-specific rates – and it will be calculated at the point of approval, but payable on occupation.

This would be used by local authorities to secure affordable housing – potentially through the purchase of homes on-site as part of an ‘in-kind’ delivery of the Levy. The Government argues that this will “create an incentive for the developer to build on-site affordable housing where appropriate”.

So far, reaction has been mixed as to whether this will increase affordable provision or not, but given the Government is also consulting on raising the threshold for needing to providing affordable housing from 10 units to 40 or 50 for a ‘temporary’ post-COVID 19 period, it is hard to see how affordable provision will be stable in the coming months and years.

In terms of other infrastructure, councils will be able to borrow against the Levy they will receive on an application in order to bring in the necessary infrastructure in time for the development. Whether there will be a mechanism to review the Levy sum at the point of completion, is unclear.

  1. Digital by default

No more letters on lamp posts, no more 200 page Local Plan documents and wordy planning statements. Digital is the name of the game and the Government will apparently provide Local Authorities with the tools to do this. The new interactive map concept for Local Plans is the centrepiece of the new proposals and is something that arguably should have been done years ago.

Not everyone has access to the internet, so clearly there will need to be a way around that to prevent exclusion – but this is something we’ve seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as the ultimate direction of travel. And with an emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage, inclusive digital consultation programmes will be required that many local authorities and neighbourhood planning forums simply don’t have the capacity to do. The Government is clear that they don’t want just the same voices contributing to the process as they currently get, so a revolution in digital, social and online engagement will have to follow in order for more people to be brought in to the process earlier.

For BECG, we’ll be bringing forward a package of support for local plan development in the new era – watch this space.

  1. Design and sustainability will be boosted

Local design guides will be introduced to reduce “identikit, ‘anywheresville’ housing”, as well as new development having to demonstrate ‘net gain’ on energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. A national design guide will be launched later in the year, and local authorities and areas will be expected to develop their own with significant local input. These plans will guide what development in the Growth and Renewal areas will look like – but will only be given weight if there is empirical evidence behind it. So expect more consultation and involvement from communities on what design is locally considered locally good or bad.

Now, the challenge will be to avoid ‘Poundbury pastiches’ – where the amount of planning and design work means that everything looks the same anyway – and ensuring quality and space standards. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has already come out against the proposals, and the idea that something as subjective as design and beauty can be distilled into a standard guide is a tricky one to cut through. Much will rely on authorities balancing good quality design and what is both possible and financially viable in development – otherwise the very thing that is supposed to promote good quality, beautiful development, might just be the thing that makes it harder to build.

You can read the full White Paper online here. The Government is consulting on the proposals until 29 October 2020. To ensure that your views and any issues you can identify with the proposals are raised with the Government, BECG highly recommends responding to the consultation – we would be very happy to discuss this with you and how we might be able to support the creation of your response. To discuss this in more detail, please email David Button.