All quiet on the planning front, so where are we now with proposed reform of the system?

'The real problem is that the proposed reforms will erode localism to a damaging extent and shift power back to central government'

The apparent view from Westminster that the country’s planning system was so poor we needed to ‘tear it down and start again’ proved astonishingly contentious as tens of thousands of people responded to a consultation on the subject. Here, Michael Hand, CPRE Essex planning adviser, updates us on the progress of the Planning for the Future White Paper and looks ahead to the possible outcome.

The government’s controversial and radical proposals for reform of the planning system – aimed at speeding up the planning process and housing delivery – were set out in the Planning for the Future White Paper over a year ago amid much publicity. However, with a massive 44,000 responses to the associated consultation and a highly critical report from a Select Committee of MPs, the government still appears to be mulling things over.
Very little has been heard since the Planning Bill was heralded in the Queen’s Speech back in May. The government made planning reform the centrepiece of this, using briefings to national newspapers to frame it as part of its commitment to “levelling up” the Midlands and the North and enhancing its appeal to ‘Red Wall’ voters. The reforms have also been presented as part of the UK’s plan to “build back better” after the pandemic by unleashing a surge of economic growth.
Critics of the proposals have indicated that various quick fixes could be carried out comparatively easily to improve the system without the need for legislation, such as shortening Local Plans and application documents. However, as far as we know, none of these issues will be addressed in the proposed Planning Bill because the government has set its sights on a substantial overhaul.
Nevertheless, two key events took place in June that have impacted hugely on the direction of travel.
Firstly, an influential group of MPs was highly critical of the proposed reforms – particularly the proposed new ‘zonal’ approach and the need to ensure the public has a right to influence all individual applications.
The report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also called on the government to allow councils to levy council tax on approved developments that remain unbuilt – something ministers have already said they are considering.
This was followed a week later by the Conservative Party’s shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, which has piled huge pressure on the government – not least from its own backbenchers – to abandon the reform programme set out in the White Paper.
The proposed zoning of the whole country into ‘growth, ‘renewal’ and ‘protection’ areas has attracted major widespread criticism. In growth areas (which will be identified in the Local Plan), automatic permission in principle would be granted for development that falls into set parameters relating to use, height and density and in line with design codes and masterplans.
There is no detail at all as to how these will be produced, but communities have been promised “effective input”. However, once the Local Plan is adopted, there would be no further chance for local residents to comment on individual applications coming forward. This would seriously erode democratic accountability and, with political pressure building, it will be interesting to see if a reversal is made regarding the zoning proposals.
It is also reported that the government is considering dropping its proposal to centrally-set ‘binding’ housing targets on local authorities. In the light of the strength of feeling caused by the so-called mutant algorithm last autumn, on which the government was forced to back down, this is hardly surprising.
That rebellion came about despite the fact that the numbers produced by the algorithm were not binding on councils, while this further proposal, put forward in vague terms in the consultation, will mandate specific numbers. Although the government has indicted that greater emphasis will be given to brownfield sites and urban areas, the threat to greenfield land remains.
Another contentious proposal relates to the idea of a nationally-set flat rate infrastructure levy, replacing the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 Agreements.
This has been dismissed by almost everyone in the development sector as unworkable – penalising the least viable brownfield sites, which are exactly those on which the government says it wants development to come forward.
In a striking about-turn, the government has decided to backtrack on this and the system of locally-set levies will continue, albeit in a potentially new guise. This shows that criticism of the government’s proposals (which were completely at odds with its much-vaunted concept of localism) has been taken on board.
The real problem is that the proposed reforms will erode localism to a damaging extent in a number of ways and shift power back to central government.
Moreover, they do nothing to address many of the real issues that cause delay in the current planning system – in particular local authorities’ lack of resources and the rate at which the major housebuilders develop approved schemes.
Interestingly, localism was an approach heralded by the government as being integral to the planning system only a decade ago but is not mentioned anywhere in the White Paper.
The government cannot just ditch its proposals entirely, so we should expect to see a significant dilution of the planned reforms as the most likely outcome. The government is expected to respond finally to the White Paper consultation this autumn, prior to publication of the Planning Bill either later this year or in early 2022. Watch this space!