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What are the UK government’s ‘radical’ planning reform proposals?

  1. 13 August 2020
  2. By Daisy Stephens

We analyse the release of a new government White Paper outlining radical and controversial reforms to the planning system in England.

The government has long mooted radical changes to how planning permission is granted and homes are built in the UK, with Boris Johnson particularly focused on this since he became Prime Minister more than a year ago.

It’s become doubly important to him since the coronavirus crisis, as he has outlined his agenda to ‘build, build, build’ in order to boost the UK economy’s recovery from Covid-19.

However, it wasn’t until Thursday 6 August 2020 that the government released its proposals for speeding up the approval process for new developments and cutting red tape in what was hailed as a ‘once-in-a-generation reform’.

Here, we take a closer look at what the report – titled Planning for the Future – revealed about the plans for upcoming changes to the decades-old planning system in England, with the proposed shake-up strongly dividing opinion.

What was announced?

The White Paper from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government outlined radical reform for England’s oft-criticised planning system, which is regularly lambasted for being too slow, complex and bureaucratic.

Boris Johnson, in the foreword to the White Paper, said the plans were ‘unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’ and called the existing system a ‘relic’ that is ‘outdated and ineffective’.

“The whole thing is beginning to crumble and the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again,” Johnson wrote.

“That is what this paper proposes… Not more fiddling around the edges, not simply painting over the damp patches, but levelling the foundations and building, from the ground up, a whole new planning system for England.”

These latest planned changes come on top of the new class of permitted development rights introduced from1 August, which allows people and developers to build up to two extra storeys on top of purpose-built, detached blocks of flats to provide additional flats without requiring full planning permission. This prompted the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to label the plans a ‘disgrace’.

To enhance the number of new homes that can be built, and the ease with which these could be built, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick – who has recently been embroiled in a planning scandal of his own – set out plans for automatic approval for designated areas.

This includes redrawing local plans produced by the Local Planning Authority (LPA) to make sure that land would fall into only one of three categories: growth, renewal or protected (Green Belt).

Planning approvals in areas categorised for growth would be ‘automatically secured’ as long as certain conditions are met, while some development would be allowed in renewal areas. It would be restricted in protected zones.

What’s more, local authorities would be bound by a new national requirement for the number of new homes built in their areas.

In order to speed up planning permission, the government says new laws would be introduced that would decree that local authorities and the planning inspectorate must get projects through planning in under 30 months or face penalties.

The paper said that decision-making ‘should be faster and more certain, within firm deadlines’, as well as making greater use of data and digital technology. This would come from the fast-emerging PropTech sector.

Local authorities, meanwhile, will be encouraged to adopt digital planning services where local residents are able to view and respond to maps and visualisations of upcoming development proposals online.

Building beautiful

In his big ‘new deal’ speech in June, Johnson talked about how the government will ‘build back better, build back greener, build back faster’ post-Covid-19. The latest report builds on this by making much of building for beauty.

Automatic permits will be granted for proposals for ‘high-quality’ developments which reflect local character and preferences, in an attempt to create a ‘fast-track for beauty’.

To grow the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission - an independent body that advised government on how to promote and increase the use of high-quality design for new build homes and neighbourhoods, which published its final report (Living with beauty) on 30 January 2020 setting out its recommendations to government – the White Paper outlines how developments that comply with local design codes would be guaranteed faster planning permission.

In addition, permitted developments and schemes in land designated for renewal could make use of ‘pattern books’ in the form of style guides for ‘popular and replicable designs’.

Scrapping section 106 and discounts for affordable housing developers

The paper also suggested scrapping section 106, the legal agreements developers must agree with local councils to make development schemes more acceptable. This includes building more affordable homes or paying towards public services such as transport links or a new school.

As a replacement, an updated version of the current Community Infrastructure Levy would become the standard.

Calculated based on the floor space of the development, the levy is a flat-rate fixed charge that is currently only paid once development begins. Under the reforms, however, it could be paid on the final value of the scheme once it is fully occupied. Financial sanctions would be levied on developers who are caught blocking full occupation to avoid the charge.

The paper insisted that a non-negotiable tariff would eradicate the weaknesses of section 106, where large developers often enlist lawyers to enable them to get out of their side of the agreement.

Meanwhile, the reforms would also enable local authorities to borrow money against their infrastructure levy to bankroll projects. Currently, money from the infrastructure levy can’t be used for affordable housing, which is typically secured through section 106 agreements – the reforms set out in the white paper will seek to change this by giving developers a discount on the levy if they build affordable homes.

The report said: “In effect, the difference between the price at which the unit was sold to the provider and the market price would be offset from the final cash liability to the levy.”

This, it added, would create an incentive for the developer to ‘build on-site affordable housing where appropriate’.

In order to prevent developers from delivering low-quality affordable homes on the cheap, the White Paper says that local authorities could ‘demand a cash equivalent from the developer if no buyers are found’.

Feedback is now being sought on the proposals outlined in the White Paper as part of a 12-week public consultation. The open consultation – ending at 11:45pm on 29 October 2020 – is seeking opinions on the reforms of the planning system to ‘streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed’.

What was the reaction to the planned reforms?

Labour dismissed the proposed changes as a ‘developer’s charter’ that will see ‘communities sidelined in decisions and denied vital funding for building schools, clinics and community infrastructure’.

Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, also opposed the plans. “Decades of political decisions have left social housing gravely endangered,” she said. “If the government now removes the requirement for developers to build their fair share it could face extinction. Over a million households on waiting lists for social homes risk having their hopes dashed.”

Nikki Williams of the Wildlife Trust criticised the green credentials of the reforms: “Government proposals for ‘tree-lined streets’ are nothing like enough,” she claimed.

“Parks, green spaces and all the areas around our homes must be part of a wild network of nature-rich areas that will benefit bees and birds as much as it will enable people to connect with on-your-doorstep nature every single day. This is essential if we are to tackle the twin climate and biodiversity crises as well as provide homes that people want to live in surrounded by beautiful, buzzing green spaces."

Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, argued that any loss of local control over developments ‘would be a concern’.

“It would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas,” he added.

However, the government has insisted that local communities will be consulted from the beginning of the planning process, while valued green spaces will be protected for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land.

Alan Jones, president of RIBA, was particularly scathing of the new proposals: “While there's no doubt the planning system needs reform, these shameful proposals do almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes,” he said.

"While they might help to ‘get Britain building’ - paired with the extension of permitted development – there’s every chance they could also lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing."

Jenrick, though, labelled such claims as ‘complete nonsense’ and said RIBA’s response was put out before the government had even published its document.

“This year and next year will be very challenging for the industry and these reforms, although long-term, will give a big confidence booster to everyone who works in the sector knowing that there is going to be a faster, simpler system for them to navigate in the years ahead,” Jenrick told Sky News.

The radical shake-up of the planning system, which would rip up laws dating back to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, has also faced stinging criticism from countryside groups and environmentalists who described plans to make new homes carbon-neutral by as late as 2050 as ‘pitiful’.

However, one of the chief government advisers behind the radical planning reforms – planning barrister Christopher Katkowski – hit out at critics for their ‘mischaracterisation’ of the proposals.

Katkowski said that, in contrast to much of the reporting of the proposals, the new system will actually give ‘far more power to councillors and local people’ to determine what is built where.

While everyone seems to agree that the planning system is ripe for reform and upgrading, the best way of going about doing this remains a topic of heated debate.

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