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English planning reform 'must not get in way' of economic recovery

Out-Law News | 06 Aug 2020 | 12:14 pm | 3 min. read

The government must be careful not to rush through major reforms to the planning system in England at the expense of economic recovery, an expert has warned.

Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, was commenting as the government began a 12-week consultation on "landmark" reforms aimed at speeding up and modernising the planning system, with a particular focus on speeding up delivery of new housing.

Owen said: "There is no doubt that reform of some parts of the planning system is long overdue but a major overhaul now, let alone a rushed one, could result in lasting damage, particularly because of uncertainty and delays whilst we transition to the new system over a two to three year period".

"Reform must not get in the way of kick-starting the economy and building back better and greener but the devil really will be in the detail, particularly how a three-category zoning system would work in practice, and yet currently there is little detail available," he said.

Owen Robbie_November 2019

Robbie Owen

Partner

There is no doubt that reform of some parts of the planning system is long overdue but a major overhaul now, let alone a rushed one, could result in lasting damage.

The consultation proposes a more rules-based planning process based on the classification of land into one of three categories: 'growth' areas suitable for substantial development; 'renewal' areas suitable for some well-designed development; and 'protected' areas, including the green belt, where development is restricted. Local planning authorities (LPAs) would be expected to identify land in each of these categories in their local plans.

Local plans would be simplified and standardised, replacing general policies for development with a core set of standards and requirements. The government anticipates that this will cut the length of local plans by about two thirds. A shorter statutory timetable of 30 months, or 42 months for LPAs which have adopted a local plan in the past three years, would be introduced within which the new local plans must be put in place.

The government is proposing a shift away from reliance on documents throughout the planning process to a 'digital-first' approach, particularly for those parts of the process that involve community engagement. LPAs will be encouraged to develop digital tools to support community engagement with both the local plan process and decision-making, with communities encouraged to feed their views into the system through social networks and via their phones.

The consultation emphasises "beautiful" development and a focus on design, sustainability and energy efficiency. A new fast-track planning process would be introduced to support "those who want to build beautifully", with automatic permission for "high quality" developments which "reflect local character and preferences". A simpler assessment of the environmental impact and sustainability of proposals would be incorporated into the new system.

Planning law expert Richard Griffiths of Pinsent Masons said: "The paper provides a teaser as to how the government may reform the Strategical Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal and Environmental Impact Assessment processes".

"If the government presses ahead with the zone-based approach, then the current SEA/EIA regulations will not work and will need to be revised. With reference in the paper to the UK being outside the EU and to protections that make the 'biggest difference' to species, habitats and ecosystems, there will be real concern that the government will use these planning reforms to water down dramatically the current environmental protections. Whilst this may well speed up the planning process, speed cannot be at the expense of the environment," he said.

Griffiths Richard

Richard Griffiths

Partner

There will be real concern that the government will use these planning reforms to water down dramatically the current environmental protections. Whilst this may well speed up the planning process, speed cannot be at the expense of the environment.

The government also intends to replace the current system of developer contributions, including section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy, with a new infrastructure levy. The new levy would be set at a fixed proportion of the value of the development above a set threshold, with the proceeds used to fund new roads, local facilities and affordable housing, including for local first-time buyers. The government is also consulting on proposals to extend the current small sites exemption from section 106 payments.

Robbie Owen said that while it was "inevitable" for the paper to focus on housing, the government "also needs to get a grip of the growing list of issues with getting planning for major infrastructure projects which are equally important to the recovery".

"It is vital that these issues are tackled as part of the National Infrastructure Strategy this autumn, and that a new overarching National Policy Statement is put in place to restore infrastructure market and community confidence in the planning process and get more sustainable large infrastructure projects off the ground," he said.

The Pinsent Masons planning team is hosting a series of webinars in September that will share critical thinking across both the public and private sector and explore whether the government's proposed planning reforms are likely to do the job in terms of facilitating the rebuilding of the UK economy. Find out more, and book, the Residential and CommercialEnergy and Infrastructure; and Environment events.