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Chief planner: Proposed infrastructure levy will bring in 'at least as much money' as current system

Words: Laura Edgar
Developer contributions / Shutterstock_1852918930

England’s chief planner Joanna Averley has insisted that the infrastructure levy proposed in the planning white paper will bring in at least the same amount of money for local authorities to allocate towards affordable housing.

Speaking at the Planning Portal’s virtual conference today (16 November), Averley noted that everybody recognises the current system for developer contributions “can be quite a barrier” for small and medium sized enterprises to get involved in the planning system, and that it “does take a lot of time to negotiate and see through”.

The government’s white paper – Planning for the Future – proposes reforming the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) so that it is charged as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory nationally set rate or rates. The current system of planning obligations would be abolished, with Section 106 consolidated under a reformed, extended ‘infrastructure levy’, which could be extended to capture changes of use through permitted development rights. The government suggests the reformed levy would help to deliver affordable housing.

Averley said that the proposed levy has not been designed yet, and that the government hasn't got a formula. Yet while this detail is yet to be worked through, it will “bring at least as much money into the system as it does now to local governments to allocate to affordable housing, infrastructure and other local requirements”.

It is “very much” about a smarter taxation system that's related to local constraints, Averley continued. It will have “an element of prescription that is set nationally, so that the negotiations are much more straightforward and there's more certainty in the system”.

Averley spoke about taking up the role of chief planner in September. What has struck her, she said, was the “really serious intent” from the government on important issues. This includes making sure that the planning system responds to the “challenges we've got at the moment in terms of being fleet of foot, being smart, and therefore giving greater certainty and greater engagement for people in the planning system and therefore better outcomes”.

The white paper, said Averley does this in a number of ways, such as digitising much of what planning does. It is about making sure the profession is smart about how it commits to paper or digital, and that “we don't repeat locally what is said nationally”.

Plans should be "neater, smarter documents,” she added. The aim is for future local plans to be produced to an approximate 30-month timeframe.

Averley concluded by contextualising the white paper as part of a “big reform agenda”.

“It's not like issuing a PPG update; we are not going to be done with it in a couple of months.”

The government, she said, will work with colleagues across the industry to get into the detailed design of the reform packages.

“We're committed to working with local authorities, communities, and the development industry to make sure that there isn't a gap in thinking or engagement, but that we're engaging with you through this process, and very much recognising the issues that many have raised with us at round tables.

“Local authority resources, and the need to be able to think about strategic planning in this space and setting some of these agendas against all the challenges that we're facing. And the market conditions that are challenging for our town centres and our high streets at the moment, and obviously the journey towards zero carbon and dealing with the environmental challenges that we're facing.”

Other snippets

Sarah Chilcott, managing director of Planning Portal

"We welcome many of the aspects that are in the white paper. As Joanna said, there's still quite a lot that needs to be worked through in terms of the detail and they are always the difficult bits."

Some real clarity on the role of local government is required. It is a "massive change programme" requiring "a need to make sure that we understand that this is a huge challenge for the industry. We will have to work together to deliver it".

"That will mean some support for local authorities in particular, but others as well in terms of thinking about how that change is managed."

Matthew Spry, senior director and head of the London office at Lichfields

"If you look at the planning system we've got at the moment, you wouldn't set out to design it that way, so I think the white paper taking a fresh look is welcome."

"There has to be scope to to declutter the planning system as it exists, but I think everyone acknowledges the white paper is still quite loose. It's a set of principles and we need to look very carefully at the detailed design of it, be aware of the unintended consequences, and really think quite carefully about what the likely behaviours are going to be of all the participants within the planning system at all the different stages."

He also noted that there needs to be clarity on the move from system A to system B.

Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society

Kiely questioned Averley about the envisioned 30-month timescale to get a local plan in place. Given the requirements for upfront design work to grant outline planning permission and increasing engagement, he considered the timescale "ambitious to the point of being deluded".

In response, Averley said: "What we're talking about is having a plan-making process that is enabled by digital, which should therefore in essence be able to be done more quickly, that's one aspect. The other has to do with the role and purpose of doing spatial planning, which is informed by character analysis of the built environment and natural environment, and then the use of masterplans and the use of coding.

“What's really important is that the white paper outlines some really important big moves in the planning system. I think it's really important people on this call don't see every single detail as having been fully worked through because it hasn't. And I'll give an example so Mike - there was a kind of conversation about is it outline permission as we know it now or is it permission in principle as we know it now. The reality is I think it might be a hybrid. So I think, particularly in the space of preparing plans in a faster timetable, if we had a fully digitally enabled process, we might think differently about it. If we're thinking about planning as we do it now, then we understandably would be reluctant to  commit to that sort of timeframe.

"What we'll be thinking through in the next couple of months is how the best of digital, and the best and smartest engagement can actually lead to a faster plan making process."

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