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Jenrick unveils planning future

06 August 2020

By Phil Briscoe, Managing Director, Newington, part of SEC Newgate

As the long-awaited Government White Paper “Planning For The Future” is published, Newington Communications Managing Director Phil Briscoe looks at the key points.

In the last General Election, Boris Johnson famously drove a bulldozer through the Brexit wall, but what has Robert Jenrick proposed for the outdated English planning system – will he drive a bulldozer through it or just paper over the cracks like so many planning ministers before?

From the outset, the 82-page document goes on the attack, labelling the current planning system as inefficientopaque and making decisions based on discretion rather than rules, frequently leading to poor outcomes. The 1947 roots of the current system are blamed for failing to keep up with the modern world and those failures are entrenched with bad local decisions resulting in 36% of local major application refusals being overturned at appeal.

With only 50% of local authorities meeting their statutory obligation to have a Local Plan and only 7% of people (according to a recent poll) trusting their council make decisions around large-scale development, the document sets the stage for major change.

The proposals themselves largely fall under three key section headings or pillars all underpinned with consistent themes around modernisation, streamlining and much greater use of data, digital and PropTech channels, but with the headline objective of delivering 300,000 new homes each year and a total of 1million new homes by the end of the current Parliament.

Pillar One deals with planning for development and  tackles the already-trailed concept of zoning land into three categories:

·        Growth areas that are suitable for sustainable development including new settlements, urban extension sites, former industrial sites and urban regeneration sites. Sites categorised as such in the Local Plan would have outline approval for development, but all flood risk areas would be excluded from this category.

·        Renewal areas that are suitable for development would include existing built areas that are suitable for smaller scale development, including densification, infill, town centres and village-edge sites. A statutory presumption in favour of development would not stop local authorities resisting inappropriate development on residential gardens.

·        Protected areas include Green Belt, AONB and Conservation Areas.

The Local Plan itself will be shortened to focus on area identification, reducing development management policy to area-specific requirements around height limits, scale and density. However, it is envisaged that the NPPF would become the primary source of policies for development management. In the process, the Sustainability Appraisal will be abolished, the Duty to Cooperate test will be removed and the deliverability assessment will be reduced.

The document states that the time to produce a Local Plan has grown from 450 days in 2009 to 815 days in 2019, and the proposed prescriptive process would see a Local Plan completed in 30 months and reviewed every five years.

Turning to individual applications the paper demands that the eight or 13 week decision timelines should move from being an aspiration to a firm deadline, with strong incentives on the local planning authority to deliver decisions on time. This  section in particular is peppered with the words that will deliver this improved efficiency – digitisation, data, software, standardisation etc.

Beyond the local planning decision, the Secretary of State will retain call-in powers and applicants will have a right of appeal, but greater certainty in the system is envisaged as reducing the demand for this extra tier.

Pillar Two deals with planning for beautiful and sustainable places and focuses on binding design codes and a planning system which is rooted in local preferences and character.

A new design body would be supported by a new chief officer for design and place-making in each local authority.

A proposal to fast-track planning for beauty by accelerating high quality development reflecting local character and preferences sounds like one of the areas where meaningful engagement will be required with local communities.

In addition, this section deals with sustainability and a renewed commitment to net-zero by 2050 alongside ambitious improvements to energy efficient standards.

Pillar Three deals with planning for infrastructure and connected places and proposes a new Infrastructure Levy to replace all CIL and current planning obligations.

The new flat-rate charge would be set nationally at either a single rate or area-specific rates and would be charged on the final value of a development, with the levy also applying to Permitted Developments. 

While greater certainty over contributions is expected, the plan is also to include affordable housing contributions within this levy and for local authorities to have more freedom over how they spend it, which will see more trade-offs between infrastructure investment and affordable housing.

Although the document is peppered with consultation questions and alternative ideas for implementation, there is a clear commitment to “rapid” delivery and implementing the changes as quickly as possible after the 12-week consultation period.

In addition, a separate and shorter consultation document has been published today on four shorter-term measures:

·        Changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need;

·        Securing First Homes, sold at a discount to market price for first time buyers, including key workers, through developer contributions until the transition to a new system;

·        Temporarily lifting the small sites threshold, below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing, to up to 40 or 50 units;

·        Extending the current Permission in Principle to major development so landowners and developers have a fast route to secure the principle of development for housing on sites without having to work up detailed plans first;

In conclusion, the White Paper is a more radical look at the planning system than we have seen for some time and while there is a lot of detail to be ironed out and a lot of faith placed in new methods, it is clear that Rob “The Builder” Jenrick has fired up the bulldozer and is on a mission to smash the system we have known for so long.

The question is whether this will be enough to really speed up and simplify the planning system, or if 30-month Local Plans and greater protection for the Green Belt will still drag us back to the old system.