Planning Reform - a White Paper that promised to 'tear it down and start again...’

With a spate of planning policy announcements in recent weeks, as Parliament prepares for summer recess, the latest of which came last week in the form of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Ben Simpson looks at where we are almost a year on from the publication of the government’s White Paper on planning reform, a White Paper that promised to ‘…tear it down and start again...’

As we wait for government’s response to its consultation exercise last autumn, we’ve been reflecting on the likely emerging policy directions from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and what they could mean for planning strategy in the future. 

The first thing to say is that the initial energy behind the White Paper’s intended re-build of the planning system seems to have substantially ebbed away over the past 12 months. In his speech to the Local Government Association earlier this month, Robert Jenrick described the government’s intentions as reform of the system rather than a re-build.  The centrally led themes of the White Paper are now to be replaced by a council-led package of reforms. This apparent shift in stance stems from ongoing backbench concerns and opposition, spurred on and given greater weight by the surprise Lib Dem win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election (attributed to a campaign that was ruthlessly NIMBY and anti-HS2). The effect, as we have seen from our own engagement with Conservative councillors in recent weeks, is a marked increase in sensitivity to public concerns over planning. All that being said, the supreme irony is of course that fundamental changes have been made through amendments to the Use Classes Order that have taken large amounts of control away from local planning authorities, with a fraction of the consultation being undertaken relative to the wider reform programme.

Whilst we don’t yet have the detail of those reforms, we have identified some signposts that are worth considering when taking forward plans and proposals.

For Zonal Plans, read Enhanced Allocations – the fallout from the political reactions to the White Paper (and the Lib Dem win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election) has been significant and one of the key parts of the White Paper (the proposal to introduce three Zones for land use across the country) appears likely to be all-but removed from the next stage of the reform process.  Fears over the removal of locally-accountable decision-taking (championed by Conservative backbenchers and Labour, particularly in the South East) is leading to the likely revision of this part of the reforms into a proposal to clarify what forms of development will be acceptable on which pieces of land, while also speeding-up the current process of allocating land for development within Local Plans.

We will have to wait and see the detail within these changes to the proposed reforms, but we think it seems likely that they will not require the same level of detail and evidence (and therefore investment) as appeared likely under the terms of the White Paper.

How Many New Homes? – The government’s proposals to remove a large element of the debate (and hence delay) in the preparation of Local Plans by setting the housing need for all Local Planning Authorities centrally (the Standard Method) has been the second notable casualty of the political reaction to the White Paper.  This issue has been ever-present over previous decades as local authorities have grappled with how to provide sufficient homes of the right type and tenure, and while the cross-party Housing and Communities Select Committee provided a good degree of support for the government’s proposals, they also mooted the potential for authorities to define their own housing need where they feel that the Standard Method produces a figure that is not reflective of local circumstances. This latter proposal has been at the forefront of many a discussion amongst Local Plan working groups across the country and the issue of perceived over-development was one of the issues behind the recent by-election result in Chesham and Amersham.

It seems likely that the proposals to set housing need centrally will be swept away as part of the consultation and that local planning authorities will be empowered to prepare their own variation to or alternative version of the Standard Method, where they are able to substantiate that with evidence.  That would then have implications for the effectiveness of the five-year housing land supply calculation in situations where local planning authorities lower their requirements and therefore their need to supply land for homes. Government did float the idea of removing the housing land supply test within the White Paper and it remains to be seen whether they will do that, although that seems less likely in the event that they abandon the Standard Method as a centrally-set requirement.

For Infrastructure Levy, read Reformed CIL minus Section 106 – The third significant element of the White Paper proposals was the intention to create a centrally-set Infrastructure Levy. This proposal was subject to a lot of scrutiny and comment from professional bodies who amongst other things, questioned the ability to set a single Levy considering the major regional and national disparities in land values as well as other locally specific variables. Recent commentary from the Homes and Communities Secretary in his speech to the Local Government Association indicates that the Government have listened to these comments and are moving towards a locally set Levy that would be mandatory (rather than optional as currently). Perhaps more significantly though, they appear determined to remove the s106 obligation as a tool to secure the delivery of certain aspects related to/part of a development.  We, along with many others in the industry would be very concerned were this to be carried through (and without a suitable substitute) as s106 obligations are an essential and transparent part of the planning process.  The function that they fulfil will be required whether an Infrastructure Levy is introduced nationwide or not.

Green Belt: Here to Stay – The debate over the continued usefulness of one of the Planning System’s oldest policy tools continues, albeit government has moved quickly to try and dispel any uncertainty regarding the potential to hold a review into the purposes and functions of the Green Belt following a recommendation from the Housing and Communities Select Committee that such a review take place, stating that there will be no change to the protections afforded to the Green Belt.

This confirmation that the current protection for Green Belt will remain has served to strengthen the resolve of many local planning authorities whose administrative area includes a large proportion of Green Belt to maintain an approach that seeks to resist any loss of Green Belt, despite often chronic under-supply of homes and in particular, affordable homes.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder – Rather like Green Belt, Government’s focus on architecture and design is here to stay.  The White Paper’s proposals for a National Design Code have now been realised through the publication of Building Beautiful Places, for a planning system that puts beautiful, environmentally sustainable, and life-enhancing places at its heart. Writing in the Times, Robert Jenrick is emphatic about the need to return to traditional architectural styles on tree-lined streets and with access to green space. In addition to a National Design Code, Government will establish an Office for Place to help councils drive up design standards, while it will be mandatory for local planning authorities to enable design codes at a local level to drive up quality.

This emphasis on design is already being felt through negotiations with officers and members on planning applications and we expect this to continue.  The tensions between traditional architectural styles and the rationale for more modern/innovative styles may likely increase and we anticipate that there may equally be some tensions between the achievement of environmental and energy efficiency imperatives and traditional architectural styles.