David Alexander assesses the state of the current planning system in England and ponders what the future might hold.

Introduction

Since 2010 and with added impetus since 2015, reform of the planning system has been high on the Government’s agenda to increase economic growth and housing provision. The pace and range of reform has been considerable and both practitioners and users can be forgiven for struggling to keep up with the myriad of changes to planning processes.

The regular planning journals, notably The Planner, Town & Country Planning, and Planning, can help keep abreast of a planning system whose only constant is change itself. Readers may also value the House of Commons Library Briefing Papers, the latest of which, on planning reform proposals (06418), was produced by Louise Smith on 22 February and covers:

  • selected changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), to reflect Conservative 2015 manifesto commitments

  • the ongoing Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Select Committee Inquiry into the NPPF consultation, which when completed will feed into future changes

  • the DCLG Local Plans Panel of Experts consideration of efficient and effective production of local plans, whose outcome is imminent

  • a current technical consultation on implementing planning changes, that suggests a higher priority of government intervention in local plans for local authorities whose plan policies are not kept up to date. Unless local plans are up to date by early 2017, neighbourhood plans that depend upon them might easily stall.

Planning reforms

The House of Commons Library Briefing Paper covers four areas.

  1. Key government planning announcements.

  2. Planning reforms in the Energy Bill, 2015–16.

  3. Planning reforms in the Housing and Planning Bill, 2015–16.

  4. Other forthcoming planning changes.

Key announcements

The Energy Bill seeks to remove the need to obtain consent from the Secretary of State for onshore wind farms above 50 megawatts, while the Housing and Planning Bill seeks to:

  • place a duty on planning authorities to promote the supply of starter homes on individual housing sites

  • require local authorities to grant sufficient permissions of serviced plots to meet demand from the self-build and custom housebuilding register

  • allow Secretary of State intervention over local plans, where local authorities are judged too slow

  • create a zonal system for brownfield land, with automatic planning permission in principle for housing.

The 2015 Productivity Plan (Fixing the Foundations, July 2015) and the Autumn Statement (November 2015) also announced further planning changes, including:

  • tightening the time allowed for minor planning applications over decisions

  • introducing local authority tests to ensure delivery of homes set out in local plans within a reasonable timeframe.

The rural productivity plan (August 2015) aimed to make the planning process easier in rural areas, including the introduction of new and revised permitted development rights.

In December 2015, the Government proposed changes to the NPPF to support housing on certain types of land. The temporary permitted development right to allow offices to change to residential use will become permanent, while there will be increased permitted development rights for shale gas exploration, upwards extensions in London and change of use to state-funded schools.

Planning and the Energy Bill

Clause 79 of this Bill will ensure all onshore windfarms over 50 megawatts are considered by local planning authorities and not the Secretary of State. Developers retain some uncertainty over this and how local communities will react.

Planning and the Housing and Planning Bill

There are concerns over the strong emphasis on starter homes instead of other forms of affordable housing that are perhaps a little more “affordable”. The Secretary of State will have greater intervention powers to ensure that both local and neighbourhood plans are produced more quickly and effectively, which is somewhat at odds with the localism principle.

The register of brownfield land should enable more housing to be built, provided such sites are given priority over the numerous greenfield sites that will also form part of a local plan housing site portfolio. The brownfield register is one of the qualifying documents for granting planning in principle, the others being future local and neighbourhood plans.

Designation for local authority poor performance will be extended from major to minor applications. To avoid designation, local authorities must designate at least 60–70% of minor applications on time over a two-year assessment period, and have less than 10–20% of decisions on minor applications overturned at appeal.

Local authorities must report on the financial benefits of supporting a planning application, including grants, Community Infrastructure Levy and New Homes Bonus.

A controversial clause concerns piloting schemes for competition with the private sector in processing planning applications, plus a dispute resolution process to speed up section 106 negotiations.

Forthcoming changes

These include the establishment of the National Infrastructure Commission to look at future project needs over the next 30 years, such as:

  • improvements to the consents arrangements for nationally significant infrastructure projects

  • speeding up negotiation of section 106 agreements

  • supporting higher density housing around key commuter hubs, of which there may be potentially around 680

  • allowing drilling of boreholes for groundwater monitoring for shale gas exploration as permitted development.

There will also be permanent office to residential changes, allowing demolition of office buildings and new residential construction. Light industrial buildings and laundrettes will be convertible to homes. There will be a government review of the Community Infrastructure Levy and appropriate small-scale sites in the green belt allocated for starter homes in neighbourhood plans.

The definition of affordable housing will broaden the range of housing types, including homes for sale as well as rent. Only local authorities that perform well will be able to increase planning fees, in line with quality and efficiency of service. The New Homes Bonus may become an incentive to put in place a local plan.

There remains concern over statutory consultees delaying the planning process, but this partially reflects the lack of public sector resources. The March budget provided some support for new market towns and “garden suburbs”, mostly in the form of commitments to new legislation.

Conclusion

The planning world is currently undergoing a huge change, with the uncertainties and unintended consequences that surround it. There seems little doubt that the planning system, in England especially, is at a crossroads, perhaps epitomised by the ideological undertones of introducing private, commercial competition into the application process.

One must question how far the independent, professional ethos of the planning system is understood by Government and whether planning is merely a tool to aid the development process at the expense of wider environmental and social needs to achieve better places through sustainable development. According to Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration, “the Government’s direction of travel, the dismantling of the planning system by a thousand cuts to release untrammelled market forces, is as clear as the negative impact of this, through market failure, on the planet, society and the economy”.

If this direction is maintained and accentuated by continued public sector resource cuts that will impede local authorities from carrying out planning work, a backlash might be expected, towards the planning system as a keystone for positive change across economic, environmental and social issues. Our planning system was the envy of the world and can regain public trust as a key driver towards a more sustainable future.

Last reviewed 5 May 2016