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Planning Bill welcome but more detail needed, say experts

Out-Law News | 13 May 2021 | 8:53 am | 2 min. read

The UK government’s proposals to reform planning law through new legislation are welcome, but require detail to clarify how the law will meet its aims of speeding up planning processes, experts have said.

The government announced in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech that it would introduce a Planning Bill into parliament to create a “simpler, faster and more modern planning system”.

The bill will build on a white paper and consultation last year which set out plans for a rules-based process putting land into three categories. The government said changing local development plans in this way would provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different types of land.

Planning expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the reforms were a step in the right direction but more was required.

“The headline feature of the planning reforms – a zonal approach to local plans to facilitate new housing delivery and limiting the ability to object to new developments - will not on its own fix the housing crisis let alone deliver healthy sustainable communities. We need a one-stop shop planning regime which allows nationally significant housing proposals to be approved, alongside the essential environmental, communication, social and economic infrastructure needed, if we are to address the lack of new housing across England,” Owen said.

“So, as floated in the white paper, government should include in the Planning Bill an extension of the scope of the national infrastructure planning regime to cover major housing and new settlements; there is widespread support in the sector for the principle of doing so but the detail certainly needs working out,” Owen said.

The government said reform was needed as too few homes were being built, a minority of local authorities had up-to-date local plans in place, and there was very little meaningful engagement with the planning system.

“It is not just a numbers game, and the world has moved on from 2017's ‘Fixing our Broken Housing Market’,” planning expert Iain Gilbey of Pinsent Masons said.

“Local communities and promoters alike can look forward to a front-end loaded system, where growth zones will be expected to accelerate permission in principle, and facilitate delivery. The new proposals will need to ensure that there is not a democratic deficit, as local communities will expect to be meaningfully consulted if plans are to emerge unchallenged. Digital engagement will help, another key reform agenda item, but it is not a complete answer in itself,” Gilbey said.

The government also said yesterday that it would reform the framework for locally led development corporations, which have in the past been used to deliver projects such as 'new towns', mixed use regeneration and urban extensions.

“These outmoded delivery mechanisms, mostly last reformed in the early 1980s, do need to be modernised so that locally-led urban and new town development corporations can be set up quickly and run with the appropriate mix of public and private sector involvement, to oversee and deliver through local partnership delivery of new and expanded communities and economic development, within a sustainable framework of locally-led and informed long term stewardship arrangements,” Owen said.

Elsewhere, Owen said more detail was also needed on how the legislation would provide for the promised “faster procedures for approving major schemes and assessing their environmental impact”. He said: “We urgently need to see flesh put on the ‘Project Speed’ bones contained in last November’s National Infrastructure Strategy and how this will deliver sustainable outcomes and not just paper consents.”

Project Speed and the infrastructure strategy are both aimed at improving and speeding up the infrastructure lifecycle as well as address regional inequalities.

Owen also said it was not yet apparent from the Queen’s Speech how the Planning Bill or the re-introduced Environment Bill would address a requirement now understood to have been agreed by ministers that all nationally significant infrastructure projects should deliver 10% biodiversity net gain, which was proposed in the Environment Bill introduced in the last parliamentary session for conventional planning applications.

“Quite how and when that must be achieved, and the effect it will have on project viability and land requirements, remains to be seen,” Owen said.