Log in | Register

Planning reforms ‘will upgrade tech’ and ‘consult communities from the start’, vows Jenrick

Words: Laura Edgar
Strategic planning / iStock-483186066

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s planning reforms promise that communities will be consulted from the beginning of the planning process; that every area will have a local plan in place; and that there will be a simpler way to secure developer contributions as the government ensures the ‘sluggish’ planning system provides housing for families, key workers and young people.

Proposals in the government’s long-awaited planning white paper should make the consultation process more accessible by harnessing the latest technology, deliver homes by ensuring that local plans are in place within 30 months rather than seven years, and guarantee that new homes are “zero carbon ready”.

Changes to the system, the government explains, would be a “major boost” to SME builders. “They will be key players in getting the country building on the scale needed to drive our economic recovery, while leading housebuilding that is beautiful and builds on local heritage and character.”

Planning for the Future states that the planning system needs to be fit for purpose to meet the challenges England faces, which include but are not limited to: solving a shortage of high-quality homes, improving biodiversity, supporting sustainable growth while rebalancing the economy, and combating the climate crisis.

The system must make land available in the right places and for the right form of development, it explains. This means ensuring that new development includes the schools, hospitals, surgeries and transports that local communities need while simultaneously protecting “our unmatchable architectural heritage and natural environment”.

However, at the minute, the government feels that although there are many “brilliant planners and developers”, “too often excellence in planning is the exception rather than the rule”. The paper says progress is hindered by a number of problems, such as:

  • Shaped by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, decades of reform have added complexity, uncertainty and delay to the system. It now works best for large investors and companies. 
  • Nearly all decisions to grant consent are undertaken on a case-by-case basis, rather than determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done. This increases planning risk, pushing up the cost of capital for development and discouraging both innovation and the bringing forward of land for development.
  • It takes too long to adopt a local plan.
  • Assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts are too complex and opaque.
  • It has lost public trust.
  • It is based on 20th-century technology. 
  • The process for negotiating developer contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure is complex, protracted and unclear.
  • There is not enough focus on design, and little incentive for high-quality new homes and places.
  • It does not lead to enough homes being built, especially in those places where the need for new homes is the highest. 

In his foreword to the consultation document, Prime Minister Boris Johnson states that the white paper proposes “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”.

He added that it isn't “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".

It will be “simpler, clearer and quicker to navigate, delivering results in weeks and months rather than years and decades", he promises.

Planning for the Future goes on to state that the reforms “are an attempt to rediscover the original mission and purpose of those who sought to improve our homes and streets in late Victorian and early twentieth century Britain”. 

"That original vision has been buried under layers of legislation and case law. We need to rediscover it.”

Jenrick said: “Our complex planning system has been a barrier to building the homes people need; it takes seven years to agree local housing plans and five years just to get a spade in the ground.

“These once-in-a-generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better-quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country. We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.

“As we face the economic effects of the pandemic, now is the time for decisive action and a clear plan for jobs and growth. Our reforms will create thousands of jobs, lessen the dominance of big builders in the system, providing a major boost for small building companies across the country.”

Split into three pillars, the proposals to streamline the planning process, which are out for consultation now, include:

  • The role of land use plans should be simplified. Local plans should identify three types of land – growth areas suitable for substantial development, renewal areas suitable for development, and areas that are protected. 

- Growth areas “suitable for substantial development”, which would be defined in policy. This category would include new settlements and urban extension sites, and areas for redevelopment, such as former industrial sites or urban regeneration sites. Sites annotated in the local plan under this category would have outline approval for development. Flood-risk areas would not be included. 

- Renewable areas “suitable for development”, would cover existing built areas where smaller-scale development is appropriate, such as the “gentle densification and infill of residential areas” as well as development in town centres. There would be a statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable in each area.

- Protected areas, such as green belt land, areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), conservation areas, local wildlife sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space. 

  • This new-style local plan would comprise an interactive web-based map of the administrative area where data and policies are easily searchable, with a key and accompanying text. Areas and sites would be annotated and colour-coded in line with their designation. 
  • Development management policies established at national scale and an altered role for local plans.

- Development management policy contained in the plan would be restricted to clear and necessary site or area-specific requirements, including broad height limits, scale and/or density limits for land included in growth areas and renewal areas, established through the accompanying text.

- Local planning authorities and neighbourhoods (through neighbourhood plans) would play a crucial role in producing required design guides and codes to provide certainty and reflect local character and preferences about the form and appearance of development.

  • Local plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, replacing the existing tests of soundness. This would see the sustainability appraisal system abolished and the duty to cooperate removed. 
  • A standard method for establishing housing requirement figures which ensures enough land is released in the areas where affordability is worst, to stop land supply being a barrier to enough homes being built. The housing requirement would factor in land constraints and opportunities to more effectively use land, including through densification where appropriate, to ensure that the land is identified in the most appropriate areas and housing targets are met.
  • Decision-making should be faster and more certain, with firm deadlines, and make greater use of digital technology. This includes greater digitalisation of the application process; a new, more modular, software landscape to encourage digital innovation and provide access to underlying data; shorter and more standardised applications.
  • Local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will be required through legislation to meet a statutory timetable for key stages of the process, and we will consider what sanctions there would be for those who fail to do so.
  • To make design expectations more visual and predictable, the government will expect design guidance and codes to be prepared locally with community involvement, and ensure that codes are more binding on decisions about development.
  • To support the transition to a planning system which is more visual and rooted in local preferences and character, the government will set up a body to support the delivery of provably locally-popular design codes, and propose that each authority should have a chief officer for design and place-making.
  • Introduce a fast-track for beauty through changes to national policy and legislation, to incentivise and accelerate high-quality development that reflects local character and preferences.
  • Amend the NPPF to ensure that it targets those areas where a reformed planning system can most effectively play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and maximising environmental benefits. 
  • To complement the reforms, the government will facilitate improvements in the energy-efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver our world-leading commitment to net-zero by 2050. 
  • The community infrastructure levy should be reformed to be charged as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory nationally set rate or rates and the current system of planning obligations abolished. The current system of planning obligations under section 106 should be consolidated under a reformed, extended ‘infrastructure levy’, which could be extended to capture changes of use through permitted development rights.
  • The reformed infrastructure levy should deliver affordable housing provision.
  • Develop a comprehensive resources and skills strategy for the planning sector to support the implementation of our reforms. The cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer.

The Planner will be looking at the proposals in more depth over the next few days and weeks. 

Planning for the Future can be found here on the UK Government website. The consultation closed on 29 October.

Read more:

Planning reforms ‘will upgrade tech’ and ‘consult communities from the start’, vows Jenrick

‘Revised’ standard method in raft of proposed changes to current planning system

Reaction: Proposed zonal system is ‘rather simplistic’, says RTPI

Reaction: Built environment welcomes planning white paper but it is keen for more details

It's zoning, Mr Jenrick, but not as we know it

There is a missing link between people and housing need

Plan in haste, repent at leisure

Zoning and a new system for local plans

More transparency for developer contributions or flawed again?

Image credit | iStock