17 Aug 2020

On 6 August the Government published its much-anticipated White Paper 'Planning for the Future'. For a white paper it contains a remarkable number of consultation proposals for a reworked planning system for England which looks ambitious, though fundamental aspects of the system remain. The consultation on the White Paper's proposals closes on 29 October 2020 and any proposals will require primary legislation.

Separately published for consultation until 1 October 2020 is a further document 'Changes to the Current Planning System'. This sets out proposed short-term changes to improve the effectiveness of the current planning system and will not require primary legislation. We will be considering details of that consultation separately, as well as specific discussion on the proposals for reforming the key environmental processes of the current planning system.

What is proposed?

The White Paper proposes significant changes to both the plan-making and decision-making processes. There is much emphasis on design standards, and harnessing technology for planning processes and to encourage greater participation. Measures are also set out to encourage small and medium-sized builders (SMEs), and self-build, and for all new homes to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Simplifying the role of land use plans

The Government wants to roll back the scope of local plans for being too complicated by layers of assessment, guidance and policy. Anyone who has looked at the often multitude of interlinked complex and confusing documents will sympathise. Simplification comes hand in hand with proposals to move towards a 'zonal' planning system.

Government will publish a guide to the new system including data standards and digital principles. To support standardisation, and "well in advance of the legislation being brought into force" the White Paper states that Government will provide a "model template" for local plans and subsequent updates.

New local plans should be in place by the end of this Parliament (Spring 2024).

Given that under the new proposed system, local plan processes should take no more than 30 months to be put in place, the necessary primary legislation will need to have been passed and in force, with any necessary accompanying Regulations and guidance, by Autumn 2021 – an ambitious timescale, especially as Government would need to also implement any policy changes, including to set a new housing requirement, by updating the NPPF in line with the new legislation.

Local plan allocations

The proposals

The new local plans will be required to identify areas to meet a range of development needs such as homes, businesses and community facilities for a minimum of ten years. This will include land required to take advantage of local opportunities for economic growth such as commercial space for spin-out companies near to university R&D facilities, or other high productivity businesses. Separately, the Government also intends to consolidate other existing routes to permission including simplified planning zones, enterprise zones and brownfield land registers.

Three basic allocations are proposed:

Area

Development

Decision-making

Further details expected

Growth

"Suitable for substantial development"

Includes new settlements and urban extension sites, and areas for redevelopment, such as former industrial sites or urban regeneration sites.

Potentially, sites around universities to create a cluster of growth-focused businesses.

Excludes areas of flood risk (and other important constraints), unless any risk can be fully mitigated.

Locally determined limitations (in line with national policy including the National Model design Code) on height, scale and/or density specified in the plan and may be specified for sub-areas.

Areas may be identified as suitable for higher-density residential development or for high streets and town centres to be identified as distinct areas.

Allow for sub-areas to be created for self and custom-build homes, and community led housing. LA's should identify sufficient land to meet the requirements of their registers for these housing types.

Annotated sites*** would have outline approval for the principle of development conferred by the adoption of the plan.

Detailed planning permission would need to be secured, potentially through a:

- revised reserved matters process, or

- Local Development Order, or

- Development Consent Order (DCO) in the case of exceptionally large sites with particular land assembly and planning challenges e.g. new towns.

Government will legislate to require that a masterplan and site-specific design code are in place before detailed proposals are brought forward. These could be prepared by the local planning authority (LPA). 

The NPPF will be revised to make it clear that these should seek to include a variety of development types by different builders which allow more phases to come forward together.

'Substantial' would be defined in policy.

Renewal

"suitable for development"

Existing built areas where smaller scale development is appropriate.

"Gentle" densification and infill of residential areas, town centre development.

Rural development not in Growth or Protected areas. Small sites within or on the edge of villages.

Locally determined limitations (in line with national policy including the National Model design Code) on height, scale and/or density specified in the plan and may be specified for sub-areas.

Areas may be identified as suitable for higher-density residential development or for high streets and town centres to be identified as distinct areas.

Statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for specified uses suitable in each area.

Planning permission would need to be secured, potentially:

- for pre-specified forms of development, a new 'automatic consent' if the scheme meets design and other prior approval requirements, (permitted development linked to 'popular and replicable designs'),

- for other development, a faster planning application process, or

- Local Development Order, or Neighbourhood Development Order

Pilot programme to test the proposal of permitted development for forms of development.

Protected

Sites warranting more stringent development controls, such as Green Belt, Conservation Areas, Local Wildlife Sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space as well as areas of open countryside outside of defined Growth or Renewal Areas.

At a smaller scale it would include gardens in line with the current NPPF.

Any development proposal would require a planning application (except where permitted development rights apply), and judged against national policies.

 - 

***The White Paper further states that plans "should be informed by appropriate infrastructure planning, and sites should not be included in the plan where there is no reasonable prospect of any infrastructure that may be needed coming forward within the plan period", and that this will made clear in national policy (the NPPF).

Both in Growth and Renewal areas it would still be possible for a proposal which is different to the local plan to come forward, but this would require a specific planning application.

Applications would be standardised and made shorter and key required information would be considerably reduced and made machine-readable. Greater standardisation and templating (in consultation with statutory consultees), of technical supporting information on e.g. highway impacts, flood risk and heritage matters is proposed. For major development, beyond relevant drawings and plans, there should only be one key standardised planning statement of no more than 50 pages.

Further proposed changes to plan-making

Additional reform proposals include:

  • Local plans are to be prepared more quickly and a statutory duty for local authorities to adopt a new local plan by a specified date – either 30 months from the legislation being brought into force, or 42 months for LPAs who have adopted a Local Plan within the previous three years or where a local plan has been submitted to the Secretary of State for examination. Plans should be reviewed every five years
  • A statutory 'sustainable development test' will replace the current soundness tests. This proposal includes the deletion of the duty to co-operate test and sustainability appraisals would be abolished and replaced with a simplified process of assessing environmental impact. The White Paper states that further consideration will be given to the way in which strategic cross-boundary issues, such as major infrastructure or strategic sites, can be adequately planned for, but for now it contains no further details. A consultation is expected in the Autumn
  • A binding standard method of establishing housing requirement figures would be established, set at the national level. It is proposed that this would be a means of distributing the national housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes annually, and 1m homes by the end of 2024. The existing protection for the Green Belt would also be preserved. It may be appropriate for Mayors of combined authorities to oversee the strategic distribution of numbers, and this would be allowed for. Government proposes to retain the Housing Delivery Test and the presumption in favour of sustainable development, because having enough land supply on its own does not guarantee the delivery of homes. The five-year housing land supply requirement would also be retained
  • Neighbourhood plans will be retained, with support for communities to make better use of digital tools. Government envisages that LPAs and neighbourhoods would play a crucial role in producing required design guides and codes, and either as a twin track with local plan production or prepared as a supplementary planning document
  • The Government want to see increased use of neighbourhood plans, and perhaps even plans for individual streets. To this end Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced (10 August 2020) that with immediate effect government grants to individual neighbourhood planning groups in both urban and deprived areas is to increase to £18,000.

Development control changes

It is proposed to place the 8 and 13-week determination periods on a statutory footing and to incentivise determination within those; two proposals included are an automatic refund of the application fee and deemed grant for failure to determine within statutory timescales.

In addition to the standardisation of application documents already referred to above it is proposed that there would additionally be digital templating of planning notices, clearer and more consistent planning conditions and standard national conditions to cover common issues.

A streamlined approach to developer contributions

Replacing Section 106 and CIL with a nationally-set 'Infrastructure Levy' (IL) is proposed, to be charged on the final value of the development and levied at the point of occupation. The IL could also be extended to include changes of use which take place under permitted development, and as a mechanism for affordable housing. In this context the White Paper also states that the government particularly wants to ensure that the facilities and infrastructure that communities value, such as schools, hospitals and GP surgeries, are delivered quickly through the planning system. However, there is very little further detail on how this will be achieved.

It is proposed that detailed planning decisions be delegated to planning officers. There is also a proposal that where applications are refused, applicants will be entitled to an automatic rebate of their planning application fee if they are successful at appeal. 

Emphasis on design

The White Paper promises a full response to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission's report in the Autumn as well as a consultation on recommended changes to the NPPF.

Supplementing the National Design Guide (October 2019), the Government will in the Autumn publish a National Model Design Code setting out more detailed parameters for development in different types of location: issues such as the arrangement and proportions of streets and urban blocks, positioning and hierarchy of public spaces, successful parking arrangements, placement of street trees, and high quality cycling and walking provision. It will be accompanied by worked examples, and complement a revised and consolidated Manual for Streets.

The aspiration is for local design guides and codes (informed by community preferences), to apply principles locally and to be prepared wherever possible. Government proposes to update the NPPF so that schemes which comply with local guides and codes have a positive advantage and greater certainty about their prospects of 'fast-track' approval. It is also proposed that each authority should have a chief officer for design and place-making and government will explore establishing a new expert body to assist authorities. In this context proposals later this year for improving the resourcing of planning departments are also promised.

Increasing the use of digital and online processes in planning

Government wants local authorities to radically rethink how they produce their plans and "profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities".

Local plans would be visual and map-based, standardised and based on the latest technology, including web-based, colour coded maps clearly identifying Growth, Renewal and Protected areas, and suitable development uses within each. Government would expect plans to be significantly shorter - a reduction in size of at least two thirds – given that policy contained in the plan would be restricted to clear and necessary site or area-specific development standards.

Development management policies which can be integrated with digital services, enabling digital-tech to screen developments to identify whether a development is policy compliant.

New digital engagement processes to improve the user experience and engagement for example to enable users to submit comments and visualise emerging proposals whilst on-the-go on a smart phone.

Greater digitisation of the planning application process, including shorter and more standardised planning applications, and standardisation of technical supporting information and national planning application registers.

Conclusions

The proposals set out in the White Paper are very far ranging and amount to a substantial reframing of the planning system while largely retaining the twin strands of local plans and development management. Much is to be welcomed, in terms of simplification and use of modern technology but there are some major concerns. 

It is also of note that much of the drive of the Coalition Government's planning reform from 2010, towards localism, seems to have become a distant memory, with faintly disguised centralisation of the system. Until the new required draft legislation, orders and guidance are also available it is hard to predict how it will work out in practice, whilst much of the opposition to what is proposed will surely come from shire counties and market towns when the reality of what is proposed is better understood.

There is strikingly little on the relationship between major infrastructure and land use planning, nor on the drive to a zero carbon economy. Now would seem to be the ideal time to make sure much needed new housing is built in the right places with the right public transport and to standards that mean the housing is zero carbon from the start rather than requiring expensive retrofitting in just a few years. For an attempt to be radical, largely with respect to housing provision, it is disappointing that the proposals do not seek to make the planning system the principal strand of England's striving to be a modern zero carbon economy as swiftly as possible. This can only mean that the "most radical planning reforms since World War II" will surely soon be followed by further set of reforms to deal with the impending climate emergency.

Finally we note that the Government will explore the possibility of using the Development Consent Order procedures for the delivery of major development particularly where land assembly difficulties or planning challenges arise. We have participated in a research project to illuminate these issues. Click here for more information.