05 Aug 2020

Nearly £1.3bn of investment was confirmed by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick on 4 August which includes funding for over 300 successful, 'shovel-ready', projects (selected by Local Enterprise Partnerships and Mayoral Combined Authorities), which are set to receive a share of £900m from the Getting Building Fund. 

The Fund is investing infrastructure projects including, regeneration of town and city centres, green infrastructure and clean energy, transport and digital connectivity improvements, unlocking of housing and business sites and support for SMEs. At the same time there was an announcement of a new £2bn Green Homes Grant going live at the end of September.

The funding commitments come ahead of the widely trailed 'radical' reforms of the planning system which the press release confirms are due to be announced shortly. Ahead of the publication we look at some of what's been said to date on the issues.

Over the weekend, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government announced that 'radical and necessary reforms' to the planning system to get Britain building would be revealed this week. He stated that the Government would be "introducing a simpler, faster, people-focused system to deliver the homes and places we need." Did he provide any more clues on what those reforms would include?

Writing in The Telegraph, he stated not only that the planning system is, "outdated and cumbersome", he also stated it is, "complex and slow" and in his view the chief barrier to building homes which are affordable and attractive to families.

Jenrick wrote that "once in a generation reform that lays the foundations for a better future" is required; he promised to publish the "radical and necessary reforms" this week.

Jenrick is critical of the time taken to deliver local plans, which he refers to as "absurdly complex documents and accompanying policies". He also refers to communities missing out on vital infrastructure projects; new hospitals, new schools and improved roads needed for new housing. It is perhaps likely then that the proposals will include reform to the system of developer contributions to infrastructure; indeed the Government has for some time been looking at securing a greater proportion of 'land value uplift'.

Zones - the Ministry is proposing that land will be designated into one of three zones: "for growth, for renewal and for protection".

"Land designated for Growth", in this zone designated land will "empower" development – new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be allowed automatically". 

In March last year, as part of the 2019 Spring Statement, the Government had promised to publish additional new planning guidance to support housing diversification on large sites in response to the Letwin Review which recommended that greater differentiation in the types and tenures of housing delivered on large sites would increase build out-rates.

We will have to wait and see whether automatic really means automatic? Will schemes in these zones also have to comply with a national or more local design codes and how will environmental assessment be addressed?

"Renewal areas", will "enable" much quicker development with a 'permission in principle' approach to balance speed while ensuring appropriate checks are carried out".

If the reference is to the permission in principle system that is already in place under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, then the decision whether to grant planning permission will still be taken by the local planning authority. Query then, in accordance with what will an LPA be taking its decision? If it is in accordance with a development plan then perhaps the polemic is more radical than the practice? 

"Protected land", Jenrick wrote that "our Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and rich heritage – will be protected as the places, views and landscapes we cherish most and passed on to the next generation".

Perhaps in this instance the proposal is more semantics than radical reform? The Conservative Manifesto pledged to "protect and enhance the Green Belt" and to continue to prioritise brownfield development. It may therefore be the case that this is included to 'balance' and provide reassurance to the electorate that while land will be designated for growth, protection for the Green Belt will remain?

A new process?

Jenrick referred to a "new process", "through local democratic agreement" to designate the zones.

We do know that the Government's Planning for the Future Statement, published on the 12 March 2020, made reference to their intention to "expand the use of zoning tools to support development", in order to "speed up the planning system".

There are no clues yet on the criteria for designating land under the new proposals. Maybe Jenrick is referring to new local plans in addition to setting zones? He hasn’t yet indicated how that would be resourced and if there would be any change to the national framework in which new plans would be produced.

There will also be standards and the reformed system, Jenrick states, will "draw inspiration from the idea of design codes and pattern books" and will place "a higher regard on quality and design than ever before". 

There was mention of design standards back in the Conservative Manifesto. The Manifesto proposed that communities would be asked to "decide [their] own design standards for new development" and "(…) local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture." Further, that the Government would support modern methods of construction and encourage innovative design and technology including to make housing suitable for an aging population and the disabled. 

The Manifesto promised to encourage the creation of "environmentally friendly homes" which it was stated would be "new kinds of homes that have low energy bills and which support our environmental targets" and an expectation for "all new streets to be tree lined".

Over the weekend Jenrick wrote, "We will build environmentally friendly homes that will not need to be expensively retrofitted in the future, homes with green spaces and new parks at close hand, where tree lined streets are provided for in law, where neighbours are not strangers." That sounds pretty much in line with the Manifesto pledges. Perhaps what is holding up the publication of the proposals is the need to make sure that any design proposals are COVID-19 proof.

Subsequently, back at the end of last year there were statements that the "first-ever Government-backed national model design code will be published in the new year [2020] and will set out a clear model for promoting a better design and style of homes across the country, shaped by what people want." (see our previous briefing on what to expect in 2020 here).

We will have to await the paper to understand who will prepare the design codes, but perhaps it will fall to communities to create the "pattern books" while government sets the national design code.

Jenrick also promises an interactive, and accessible map-based online system and one that ensures "enhanced local democracy and accountability through technology and transparency".