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Feel the Lurb: New bill’s influence could undermine local decision making

See saw
The much-heralded levelling up and regeneration bill may not, upon scrutiny, have quite the desired effect, says Hannah Richins

The levelling up and regeneration bill presents significant changes to the English planning system which aligns with the government’s levelling up agenda and aims to rebalance disparities seen across the country. 

The levelling up bill follows from the 2020 planning white paper which presented some radical ideas on planning reform, most notably the adoption of a zonal planning system. Whilst many of the suggested proposals from the 2020 white paper have not followed into this Bill, there are some similarities. Principally, the two papers share a desire to bring about fundamental changes to our planning system.  

Despite the focus of the bill being on rebalancing geographical disparities and devolving powers to allow this, there seems to be a shift in how local authorities make decisions regarding development in their local areas. 

What changes will we see to local plans?

Through the levelling up bill we have seen a proposal to amend Section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act (2004) to take account of “national development management policies” (NDMP) alongside development plans in decision-making. 

These NDMPs will sit alongside the policies made in a local plan and will cover high-level strategic issues such as green belt and heritage assets. These national policies will be derived from the NPPF and will guide decision-making at a local level. Essentially reducing the discretion that local authorities can apply when determining applications. 

With strategic issues forming the basis of the national policies, we will see local plans shrink in size and hopefully in the time they take to produce. In removing such issues, the Examination of these new local plans, in theory, will be more concise and less divisive. 

Deviations from the local plan

In its current form, Section 38(6) denotes that planning permission should be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. With the suggested amendments to this subsection, we now know that the NDMPs should also be taken into account when determining an application.

“Given that strategic considerations are made at a national level, the bill’s proposals may also decrease the amount of autonomy local authorities have in determining applications”

However, additional changes proposed to this subsection also indicate that deviations from both the development plan and NDMP can only occur where ‘material considerations strongly indicate otherwise’. The introduction of ‘strongly’ to this passage will mean that it will be harder for applicants to justify deviations from both local plans and the NDMPs and likely open-up a raft of litigation. 

With the changes to Section 38(6) of the PCPA comes a question of mechanics. The interaction of local plans and the NDMP will be simple when they accord with one another. However, where local plan policies conflict with the national development management policies we will see greater weight applied to the latter, bringing the national development management policies to the forefront of most decision-making that occurs in the planning system. 

What will this mean for local plans?

Whilst the proposed changes to local plans may free up local authorities to spend more time on localised decisions, given that strategic considerations are made at a national level, it may also decrease the amount of autonomy local authorities have in determining applications. 

For some local planning authorities, this will empower them to give greater consideration to local issues however for others, especially those shrink wrapped by green belt, we may see a reduction in productivity. Challenging decision making may be taken from their hands and determined by the secretary of state.  

In addition, given the greater weight to be applied to the NDMPs and that applications must now strongly indicate why a deviation is necessary, we may see applicants turning from local authorities and toward government given the weight to be applied to the NDMPs. Again, this may not incentivise local authorities to positively plan.  

Last thoughts

The proposals put forward through the levelling up and regeneration bill present significant changes to the ways in which local plans operate and function when determining planning applications. Whilst some local authorities will view these changes as a chance to bring clarity to determination, others will view it as a reduction in the discretion applied to decision-making. 

Like most things in planning, only time will tell. If our comparison is the planning white paper released two years ago, then our concerns may be presumptuous. However, it will certainly be interesting to see how the levelling up bill affects local decision-making, for better or worse.  

Hannah Richins is the strategic planning manager at Story Homes – a housing developer operating across the north of England and southern Scotland

Photo credit | THAMTECT, Shutterstock


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