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Government Announces Major Reforms to Planning System

Planning has long been the scapegoat for the lack of housing delivery, and successive governments have promised reform after reform of the planning system in an effort to boost housing completions to something resembling the figures achieved in the immediate post war years. It is safe to say that nothing has really worked, but proposed reforms published yesterday (6 August 2020) by the Government in its White Paper: Planning for the Future does appear on the surface to represent a more radical step change in approach.

Central to the white paper is an objective to deliver 300,000 homes per year, with more than 1 million homes delivered before the end of the current Government’s parliamentary term. These are reforms firmly rooted in the housing crisis with little reference made to other aspects of the economy, save for a cursory mention of the new Use Classes Order which we summarised last week

The basis for the reforms are unashamedly aimed squarely at local planning authorities with references made to convoluted validation checklists, over prescriptive policies and agonisingly slow determination periods. The changes proposed to solve these perceived impediments to housing delivery are many and multi-faceted but the Government has put forward three key pillars for change:

  • Planning for development;
  • Planning for beautiful and sustainable places;
  • Planning for infrastructure and connected places.

Within these three pillars there are 24 individual proposals for reform, among which are:

  • A move to a more continental system of land zoning, effectively granting outline planning permission for  housing through the Local Plan process;
  • Streamlining local plans, making them less repetitive of national policy, reducing them in size by two-thirds and re-focussing their content from vague policies to prescriptive standards and requirements;
  • A digitally-mechanised, ‘machine readable’ approach to planning application submissions;
  • A centralised approach to CIL including setting tariffs at the national level and changing the payment trigger from implementation of planning permission to occupation of the development;
  • Affordable housing delivered through CIL and the abolition of ‘arbitrary’ S106 agreements;
  • A standard method for establishing housing requirement figures;
  • Simplification of the EIA process

And these are just the headlines.  Many of the initiatives are not new; permission in principle already exists through the guise of brownfield registers whilst Simplified Planning Zones (SPZs) and Local Development Orders (LDOs) have been available as quasi land zoning tools to LPAs for years.  Giving the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission more influence in the planning process is also arguably a re-hash of the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment’s (CABE) remit when set up by Tony Blair in 1999.  The latter is perhaps no coincidence given that CABE’s first chief executive, Sir Stuart Lipton, is one of the architects of the White Paper advocating beautiful places and spaces.

However, what is perhaps new is the far reaching and bold nature of the proposed reforms as a whole. The fact that they have been published as a White Paper, and not a Green Paper for discussion, carries real significance.  We at Rolfe Judd Planning see this as a bold statement of intent, almost a challenge to the industry to give compelling reasons why the suggested reforms should not be implemented.

There is a sense that patience in Whitehall, which had been clearly running thin for some time, has effectively evaporated and that the planning reforms, whether new or not, will be implemented this time round with a bit more bite.  Quite how these reforms will be delivered in a climate of declining local authority budgets is anyone’s guess.  What does seem beyond doubt is that big change is on the way.