Proposed planning changes will make it easier for universities to compete, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 15 Jun 2015 | 2:39 pm | 3 min. read

FOCUS: Policies proposed by the Conservative Party during the recent general election campaign would increase the competiveness of UK higher education. It is therefore vital that universities are able to offer modern facilities and the best student experience.

During the campaign, the Conservatives pledged to abolish caps on student numbers by academic year 2015/16, and to implement a framework recognising universities offering the highest teaching qualities. If these policies are implemented, as seems likely following the departure of the Liberal Democrats from coalition, they will increase competition in an already highly competitive market - competition which will only further increase if there is any further increase in tuition fees, something that the party did not rule out during the election campaign.

Being able to offer students modern, state of the art buildings and teaching facilities adds to the student experience. It is therefore worth considering what elements of the planning regime could change under the new government and whether this will make securing planning permission for universities an easier task.

What's changed?

Unsurprisingly, given that the Conservatives were the architects of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the 2011 Localism Act, there were few significant changes to current government policy included in the party's manifesto. But the departure of the Liberal Democrats means that there is an expectation that any manifesto pledges will be met, and a number of bills to put these pledges into action were announced in the Queen's speech at the end of May.

Greg Clark, a long-time supporter of civic devolution, was appointed as the new communities and local government secretary in the post-election cabinet reshuffle. His appointment is likely to herald a new focus on local governance, in line with the Conservatives' manifesto pledge to "ensure local people have more control over planning". The new Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which would devolve more power to certain English cities, is the most striking example of this.

One of Clark's first acts has been to issue a notice requesting more time to consider whether an application by King's College London to demolish and rebuild several buildings on the Strand should be 'called in' for a public inquiry and secretary of state determination. The ultimate decision of whether or not he does so may provide an indication of the new secretary's support for university development.

As vital parties of local communities and economies, universities could potentially benefit from the localism agenda that will be brought forward by Clark. Management should ensure that the views of their institutions are being put forward and heard in order to ensure that the correct planning issues are on the agenda.

Brownfield development

One of the central policies of the Conservative manifesto was to protect the green belt, and there is therefore a clear strategy that brownfield sites should be developed first. The current test set out in the NPPF that development in the green belt should only be allowed in "very special circumstances" is not proposed to change and it is expected that it will be applied strictly, at least in the initial term of the new government, given that protection of the green belt was mentioned 11 times in the Conservative manifesto.

This may be a concern to universities that are currently looking to develop out of town campuses or research facilities. However, universities' role in the local economy and what is often an educational need for development should not be underestimated when looking to demonstrate "very special circumstances".

Investment in infrastructure

The previous government had already promised £100 billion of investment in infrastructure. This is expected to continue, and to include ongoing work on High Speed 2 (HS2) and a planned high-speed northern rail line linking the north with London, and a decision on whether to construct a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick Airport.

These investment priorities have the potential to connect all of the major cities in the UK with each other and with the rest of the world, increasing global competitiveness. In an increasingly global higher education market, this will be welcomed by universities.

A streamlined and functioning planning system is crucial to supporting that investment in infrastructure, and the delivery of projects on the ground. The apparent proposed status quo will allow the NPPF and Localism Act to bed in and achieve their full effect.

The new government is not expected to be complacent. Industry experts are calling for changes to be made on a number of issues including community infrastructure levy (CIL) reform, resourcing at the Planning Inspectorate and local planning authorities and the way in which infrastructure is funded. However, universities should be reassured that the new government has made a promise to develop and grow the economy, as their role in helping to achieve this will not have been underestimated.

Michael Pocock is a planning law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.