Planning for the Future
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Link to the Original White Paper PDF
This consultation covers a package of proposals for reform of the planning system in England, covering plan-making, development management, development contributions, and other related policy proposals.
Our proposals seek a significantly simpler, faster and more predictable system. They aim to facilitate a more diverse and competitive housing industry, in which smaller builders can thrive alongside the big players, where all pay a fair share of the costs of infrastructure and the affordable housing existing communities require and where permissions are more swiftly turned into homes.
We are cutting red tape, but not standards.
Our reformed system places a higher regard on quality, design and local vernacular than ever before.
We will build environmentally friendly homes. Homes with green spaces and new parks at close hand, where tree lined streets are the norm and where neighbours are not strangers.
We are moving away from notices on lampposts to an interactive and accessible map-based online system – placing planning at the fingertips of people. The planning process will be brought into the 21st century. Communities will be reconnected to a planning process that is supposed to serve them, with residents more engaged over what happens in their areas.
While the current system excludes residents who don’t have the time to contribute to the lengthy and complex planning process, local democracy and accountability will now be enhanced by technology and transparency.
All well and good. But, of course, we have to explore the details and read between the lines.
Up-front, I particularly like the line, which, as you’ll see, sums up the issues around actually implementing the proposals:
We would particularly want to see innovative solutions which can transform practice.
… because almost the entire framework and operation of the proposed new planning system is digitally based. Not 20th century ‘online’ but 21st century ‘engagement’.
The government divides the proposed reforms (of this White Paper) into three ‘pillars’, encompassing twenty-four ‘proposals’.
Pillar One – Planning for development
The current system of land use planning in England is principally based on Local Plans, brought forward by local planning authorities on behalf of their communities.
Local authorities have a legal obligation to provide a Local Plan for their area. Apparently, half do not. This is a problem for these proposals as the Local Plan is the basis through which planning application approval needs to be increased “at pace”. It is proposed to simplify the creation of Local Plans and enforce their creation.
But in contrast to planning systems in places like Japan, the Netherlands and Germany, where plans give greater certainty that development is permitted in principle upfront, plans in England are policy-based, with a separate process required to secure permission on the sites that it designates for development.
This local policy-based approach is the main reason why planning approvals take time, or are blocked.
The National Planning Policy Framework provides a clear basis for those matters that are best set in national policy.
Currently, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is guidance that is used in creating Local Plans. However, Local Plans (and in theory, Neighbourhood Plans) are the legal basis for planning application approval.
These proposals remove policy from Local Plans and, in the process, move the NPPF from a guidance role to a legally-binding statement-of-policy role. Effectively centralising “those matters that are best set in national policy”.
Pillar Two – Planning for beautiful and sustainable places
We have set out how a simpler planning process could improve certainty about what can be built where, as well as offering greater flexibility in the use of land to meet our changing economic and social needs.
… planning should be a powerful tool for creating visions of how places can be, engaging communities in that process and fostering high quality development: not just beautiful buildings, but the gardens, parks and other green spaces in between, as well as the facilities which are essential for building a real sense of community. It should generate net gains for the quality of our built and natural environments - not just ‘no net harm’.
Fine words but, more often than not, inconsistent with the demands of private developers to secure maximum profits.
Pillar Three – Planning for infrastructure and connected places
New development brings with it new demand for public services and infrastructure. Mitigating these impacts – by securing contributions from developers … is central to our vision for renewal of the planning system.
When developers build on a site they contribute money to the local authority through what are known as Section 106 payments, and latterly through a new levy known as the Community Infrastructure Levy. The purpose of this (attempt at) revenue-gathering is for the authority to spend on the creation of infrastructure (schools, parks, etc). Importantly, a major proportion is supposed to be used to provide so-called affordable housing.
The system doesn’t work too well for a variety of reasons, including: Section 106 agreements are ‘negotiated’ with developers; making agreements with developers is ‘discretionary’ for local authorities (!); developers often argue that their project would not be ‘viable’ if they pay too much, and many other reasons...
The Community Infrastructure Levy attempts to resolve some of these issues but
many local authorities have been slow to spend Community Infrastructure Levy revenue on early infrastructure delivery, reflecting factors including indecision, competing spending priorities, and uncertainty over other infrastructure funding streams.
Not surprising since local authorities have had draconian cuts to their central government funding, and so choose to allocate revenue to keeping basic services running (which they are legally obligated to do).
The up-shot is that developers strive to maximise their profits at the expense of local infrastructure, and affordable homes.
These proposals aim to change to a new “Infrastructure Levy” that is:
responsive to local needs, to ensure a fairer contribution from developers for local communities so that the right infrastructure and affordable housing is delivered; transparent, so it is clear to existing and new residents what new infrastructure will accompany development.
There are twenty-four specific proposals in the document:
1. SIMPLIFIED LOCAL PLANS
Proposal 1: The role of land use plans should be simplified. We propose that Local Plans should identify three types of land – Growth areas suitable for substantial development, Renewal areas suitable for development, and areas that are Protected.
The three categories of Growth, Renewal, and Protected are key to the proposed changes. In the White Paper’s words, but summarising:
Growth areas are “suitable for substantial development”. They would include land suitable for comprehensive development (including new settlements and urban extension sites) and areas for redevelopment, such as former industrial sites or urban regeneration sites. Also included are sites such as those around universities where there may be opportunities to create a cluster of growth-focused businesses.
Growth sites would have outline approval for development.
Renewal areas are “suitable for development”. They would include existing built areas where smaller scale development is appropriate. It could include the gentle densification and infill of residential areas, development in town centres, and development in rural areas (not categorised as Growth or Protected) such as small sites within or on the edge of villages.
There would be a statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable in each area.
Protected areas would include sites and areas which, as a result of their particular environmental and/or cultural characteristics, would justify more stringent development controls to ensure sustainability. This would include areas such as Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Conservation Areas, Local Wildlife Sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space. It would also include areas of open countryside (outside of land in Growth or Renewal areas). Some areas would be defined nationally, others locally on the basis of national policy, but all would be annotated in Local Plan maps and clearly signpost the relevant development restrictions defined in the NPPF.
Allocation of sites into these three categories, and at the stage that a Local Plan is developed, is the main contentious point (closely followed by the digitalisation of processes).
Now that we have in mind that a Local Plan will be structured in this way, how will it be constructed?
Local Plans should be visual and map-based, standardised, based on the latest digital technology, and supported by a new standard template. Plans should be significantly shorter in length, and limited to no more than setting out site- or area-specific parameters and opportunities.
… we will take a radical, digital-first approach to modernise the planning process. This means moving from a process based on documents to a process driven by data.
Making the plans widely open and accessible is a laudable ambition:
… for Local Plans and decision-making, making it easier for people to understand what is being proposed and its likely impact on them through visualisations and other digital approaches. We will make it much easier for people to feed in their views into the system through social networks and via their phones… We will standardise, and make openly and digitally accessible, other critical datasets that the planning system relies on, including planning decisions and developer contributions… We will insist local plans are built on standardised, digitally consumable rules and data, enabling accessible interactive maps that show what can be built where.
This (possible) engagement of the wide community into the planning process is exciting and has tremendous potential. Gone will be the days of putting posters up in libraries for a few days of “public consultation”. That the elderly generation stand to be dis-enfranchised, will be an argument. But, there is no middle ground on this… you either go full-digital or you don’t. Full digital is the key to unlocking the power for local communities. It will be up to local groups to keep everybody who might be “outside the digital loop”, involved.
2. NATIONAL POLICIES
Proposal 2: Development management policies established at national scale and an altered role for Local Plans.
There will remain a power to call in decisions by the Secretary of State and for applicants to appeal against a decision by a local planning authority, … we want to ensure the appeals process is faster, with the Inspectorate more digitally responsive and flexible.
To support local authorities … we will publish a guide to the new Local Plan system and data standards and digital principles, including clearer expectations around the more limited evidence that will be expected to support “sustainable” Local Plans, accompanied by a “model” template for Local Plans and subsequent updates”
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.
These could be produced for a whole local authority area, or for a smaller area or site (as annotated in the Local Plan), or a combination of both. Design guides and codes would ideally be produced on a ‘twin track’ with the Local Plan, either for inclusion within the plan or prepared as supplementary planning documents.
From a neighbourhood plan viewpoint, here we start to see a (potential) conflict. If the Local Plan is the legally-binding document through which planning applications are approved, how to develop ‘twin track’ design codes? Which takes precedence? If community involvement is so important how can ‘supplementary’ documents have weight?
Since the legal adoption of neighbourhood plans, there are consistent ‘clashes’ between the two, especially in terms of which takes precedence in the deliberations of planning officers and planning committee councillors. If the wishes of the community (embodied within neighbourhood plans) are not given the sufficient weight that they demand, then the community is effectively ignored.
These proposals recognise this conundrum; seeking to leverage digital engagement in different ways to not only give the local communities a ‘voice’ but to have that voice on matters of design and revenue expenditure.
3. SINGLE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT TEST
Proposal 3: Local Plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, replacing the existing tests of soundness.
If we take sustainable development to mean:
… the organising principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services on which the economy and society depends.
Then given that the new planning system intends to be a rules-based approach, we are in for an interesting time as the government ‘codifies’ such a definition… and the government it would be:
This would consider whether the plan contributes to achieving sustainable development in accordance with policy issued by the Secretary of State.
In the summarised words of the proposal:
We propose to abolish the Sustainability Appraisal system and develop a simplified process for assessing the environmental impact of plans. The Duty to Cooperate test would be removed. A slimmed down assessment of deliverability for the plan would be incorporated into the ‘sustainable development’ test.
From an environmental viewpoint this will raise sceptical concern, to put it mildly.
4. HOUSING REQUIREMENTS
Proposal 4: 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.
The approval of planning application (for houses) is often driven by a target that has to be achieved over a given time-period. The new proposals specify that:
Local Plans will need to identify areas to meet a range of development needs – such as homes, businesses and community facilities – for a minimum period of 10 years.
A standard requirement would differ from the current system of local housing need in that it would be binding, and so drive greater land release.
The formula for the calculation has yet to be determined but it would be driven by:
… the national house building target of 300,000 new homes annually, and one million homes by the end of the Parliament.
The calculation, for a local authority area, involves the consideration of: the size of existing urban settlements (“so that development is targeted at areas that can absorb the level of housing proposed”); the relative affordability of places (“so that the least affordable places where historic under-supply has been most chronic take a greater share of future development”); the practical limitations that some areas might face (“designated areas of environmental and heritage value, the Green Belt and flood risk”).
The standard method would make it the responsibility of individual authorities to allocate land suitable for housing to meet the requirement, and they would continue to have choices about how to do so: for example through more effective use of existing residential land, greater densification, infilling and brownfield redevelopment, extensions to existing urban areas, or new settlements. The existing policy for protecting the Green Belt would remain.
This approach would remove the need for a “continuing requirement to be able to demonstrate a five-year supply of land” but to “guarantee its deliverance, the Housing Delivery Test and the presumption in favour of sustainable development, remain.”
5. AUTOMATIC PLANNING PERMISSIONS
Proposal 5: Areas identified as Growth areas (suitable for substantial development) would automatically be granted outline planning permission for the principle of development, while automatic approvals would also be available for pre-established development types in other areas suitable for building.
And here’s the main bit that will speed up the granting of planning approval. It effectively takes people out of the loop. Putting to one side whether that’s a good thing, it relies upon being able to translate knowledge into rules:
We want to move to a position where all development management policies and code requirements, at national, local and neighbourhood level, are written in a machine-readable format so that wherever feasible, they can be used by digital services to automatically screen developments and help identify where they align with policies and/or codes.
Understanding the implications of the phrase “machine-readable format” here is vital. In simple terms, it means: “a format that a computer program can understand”. This removes the need for any human (legal advisor, planning committee councillor, planning officer, member of the community) to read and interpret documents. This changes the whole planning application approval process. Wow.
There will therefore be no need to submit a further planning application to test whether the site can be approved. Where the Local Plan has identified land for development, planning decisions should focus on resolving outstanding issues – not the principle of development.
We will consider the most effective means for neighbours and other interested parties to address any issues of concern where, under this system, the principle of development has been established leaving only detailed matters to be resolved.
The route to full planning permission should follow clearly and directly from the designation made in the Local Plan.
6. DIGITAL DECISIONS
Proposal 6: Decision-making should be faster and more certain, with firm deadlines, and make greater use of digital technology
The well-established time limits of eight or 13 weeks for determining an application from validation to decision should be a firm deadline – not an aspiration which can be got around through extensions of time as routinely happens now.
For major development, beyond relevant drawings and plans, there should only be one key standardised planning statement of no more than 50 pages to justify the development proposals in relation to the Local Plan and NPPF.
The preparation of reformed Local Plans, development of new design codes, a major overhaul of development contributions, and a new streamlined approach to decision-making will have profound implications for how local planning authorities operate in future.
...the delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established, as detailed matters for consideration should be principally a matter for professional planning judgment.
That is, not planning committee councillors.
And to promote proper consideration of applications by planning committees, where applications are refused, we propose that applicants will be entitled to an automatic rebate of their planning application fee if they are successful at appeal.
It will cost local authorities money if they do not give “proper consideration”.
7. DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT
Proposal 7: Local Plans should be visual and map-based, standardised, based on the latest digital technology, and supported by a new template.
In order to “move the democracy forward” the proposal is to:
improve the user experience of the planning system, to make planning information easier to find and understand and make it appear in the places that discussions are happening, for example in digital neighbourhood groups and social networks. New digital engagement processes will make it radically easier to raise views about and visualise emerging proposals whilst on-the-go on a smart phone.
This does not mean that leveraging advanced digital is a bolt-on to the existing way of community involvement. It means that is it a replacement for current means of community involvement.
Early pilots from local planning authorities using emerging digital civic engagement tools have shown increased public participation from a broader audience, with one PropTech SME reporting that 70% of their users are under the age of 45.
To encourage this step-change, we want to support local authorities to radically rethink how they produce their Local Plans, and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities.
8. STATUTORY TIMETABLES
Proposal 8: 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.
We propose that the process covers five stages, with meaningful public engagement at two stages:
Summarising (slightly) the proposal text:
Stage 1 (6 months): The local planning authority calls for suggestions for areas under the three categories, including comprehensive “best in class” ways of achieving public involvement at this plan-shaping stage for where development should go and what it should look like.
Stage 2 (12 months): The local planning authority draws up its proposed Local Plan, and produces any necessary evidence to inform and justify the plan.
“Higher-risk” authorities will receive mandatory Planning Inspectorate advisory visits, in order to ensure the plan is on track prior to submission.
Stage 3 (6 weeks): The local planning authority simultaneously:
(i) submits the Plan to the Secretary of State for examination together with a Statement of Reasons to explain why it has drawn up its plan as it has; and
(ii) publicises the plan for the public to comment on. Comments seeking change must explain how the plan should be changed and why. Again, this process would embody ‘best in class’ ways of ensuring public involvement. Responses will have a word count limit.
Stage 4 (9 months): A planning inspector appointed by the Secretary of State considers whether the three categories shown in the proposed Local Plan are “sustainable” as per the statutory test and accompanying national guidance and makes binding changes which are necessary to satisfy the test.
The plan-making authority and all those who submitted comments would have the right to be “heard” by the inspector. The inspector’s report can, as relevant, simply state agreement with the whole or parts of the council’s Statement of Reasons, and/or comments submitted by the public.
Stage 5 (6 weeks): Local Plan map, key and text are finalised, and come into force.
The creation of a new Local Plan applies to local authorities who already have a Local Plan in effect (unless that plan has been adopted within the last three years).
This should be accompanied by a requirement for each planning authority to review its Local Plan at least every five years. Reviews should be undertaken sooner than five years where there has been a significant change in circumstances, for instance where issues with land supply have been identified through regular monitoring.
Local planning authorities that fail to do what is required to get their plan in place, or keep it up to date, would be at risk of government intervention. A range of intervention options will be available, including the issuing of directions and preparation of a plan in consultation with local people.
The government would force a Local Plan on local authorities, engage with local communities… and cut the local authority out of the process.
9. NEIGHBOURHOOD PLANS
Proposal 9: Neighbourhood Plans should be retained as an important means of community input, and we will support communities to make better use of digital tools.
… we think Neighbourhood Plans should be retained in the reformed planning system, but we will want to consider whether their content should become more focused to reflect our proposals for Local Plans, as well as the opportunities which digital tools and data offer to support their development and improve accessibility for users.
Engaging the community through digital means is the way forward. There is tremendous scope for development and accessibility. However, the comment “their content should become more focused to reflect our proposals for Local Plans” brings into question the purpose of the Neighbourhood Plan.
This statement suggests that neighbourhood plans would be ‘simplified’, as Local Plans would be simplified. That means that any policy statements would be removed, leaving them to be replicas of the Local Plan?
By making it easier to develop Neighbourhood Plans we wish to encourage their continued use and indeed to help spread their use further, particularly in towns and cities. We are also interested in whether there is scope to extend and adapt the concept so that very small areas – such as individual streets – can set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see.
Now, this offers really interesting possibilities.
Proposal 10: A stronger emphasis on build out through planning
Once a site has planning permission, the way that it is “built out” is an issue. Many sites get permission and then take considerably longer than the government would like to actually build the promised houses.
To address this, we propose to make it clear in the revised NPPF that the masterplans and design codes for sites prepared for substantial development should seek to include a variety of development types by different builders which allow more phases to come forward together. We will explore further options to support faster build out as we develop our proposals for the new planning system.
11 & 12. DESIGN CODES
Proposal 11: To make design expectations more visual and predictable, we will expect design guidance and codes to be prepared locally with community involvement, and ensure that codes are more binding on decisions about development.
Proposal 12: To support the transition to a planning system which is more visual and rooted in local preferences and character, we 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.
The already published National Design Guide, is the basis for building design that:
… reflects local character and community preferences, and the types of buildings and places that have stood the test of time; but it should also address modern lifestyles, facilitate modern methods of construction (and its associated benefits for efficiency, build quality and the environment) and the need to create places that are both durable and sustainable.
However, to provide as much clarity as possible for applicants and communities and provide the basis for ‘fast-tracking’ decisions on design, broad principles need to be turned into more specific standards.
To address this challenge, this autumn we will publish a National Model Design Code to supplement the guide, setting out more detailed parameters for development in different types of location: issues such as the arrangement and proportions of streets and urban blocks, positioning and hierarchy of public spaces, successful parking arrangements, placement of street trees, and high quality cycling and walking provision, in line with our wider vision for cycling and walking in England. It will be accompanied by worked examples, and complement a revised and consolidated Manual for Streets.
As national guidance, we will expect the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and the revised Manual for Streets to have a direct bearing on the design of new communities.
It is intended that the above-mentioned guides, codes, and manual, are modified at the local level:
… by local planning authorities to supplement and add a visual dimension to their Local Plans; through the work of neighbourhood planning groups; or by applicants in bringing forward proposals for significant new areas of development.
To underpin the importance of this, we intend to make clear that designs and codes should only be given weight in the planning process if they can demonstrate that this input has been secured.
Local communities have an important role during the development of a Local Plan concerning the production of design guides for developments. This is important for two reasons: first, it gives local people (potentially) a great deal of input into developments; and secondly, as the last paragraph states, unless input from the community is obtained, design codes have little weight.
Where locally-produced guides and codes are not in place, we also propose to make clear in policy that the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and Manual for Streets should guide decisions on the form of development.
So, if a local authority, via a Local Plan, fails to engage with the local community and fails to produce local design codes, central government will apply the national codes.
13. BEAUTIFUL PLACES
Proposal 13: To further embed national leadership on delivering better places, we will consider how Homes England’s strategic objectives can give greater emphasis to delivering beautiful places.
We are committed to taking a leadership role in the delivery of beautiful and well-designed homes and places, which embed high environmental standards. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission recommended that Homes England should attach sufficient value to design as well as price, and give greater weight to design quality in its work… we will engage Homes England, as part of the forthcoming Spending Review process, to consider how its objectives might be strengthened to give greater weight to design quality.
A diplomatic way of saying that Homes England does not emphasise good design as much as it should, and that the government should ‘encourage’ it to do more.
Where proposals come forward which comply with pre-established principles of what good design looks like (informed by community preferences), then it should be possible to expedite development through the planning process.
Yes, it should.
Proposal 14: We intend to introduce a fast-track for beauty through changes to national policy and legislation, to incentivise and accelerate high quality development which reflects local character and preferences.
We propose to do this in three ways. In the first instance, through updating the NPPF, we will make clear that schemes which comply with local design guides and codes have a positive advantage and greater certainty about their prospects of swift approval.
... where plans identify areas for significant development (Growth areas), we will legislate to require that a masterplan and site-specific code are agreed as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through the plan. This should be in place prior to detailed proposals coming forward, to direct and expedite those detailed matters.
Third, we also propose to legislate to widen and change the nature of permitted development, so that it enables popular and replicable forms of development to be approved easily and quickly, helping to support ‘gentle intensification’ of our towns and cities, but in accordance with important design principles.
There is a long history – in this country and elsewhere – of ‘pattern books’ being used to articulate standard building types, options and associated rules (such as heights and set-backs). We want to revive this tradition, in areas suitable for development (Renewal areas), by allowing the pre-approval of popular and replicable designs through permitted development.
… it will foster innovation and support industrialisation of housebuilding, enabling modern methods of construction to be developed and deployed at scale.
To take this approach forward, we intend to develop a limited set of form-based development types that allow the redevelopment of existing residential buildings where the relevant conditions are satisfied – enabling increased densities while maintaining visual harmony in a range of common development settings.
The phrases “gentle intensification”, “industrialisation of housebuilding”, and “increased densities” will raise much concern. This is where community involvement, especially related to local design codes, is so important.
Where we are taking forward existing schemes to expand the scope of permitted development through upwards extensions and demolition/rebuilding, we also intend to legislate so that prior approval for exercising such rights takes into account design codes which are in place locally (or, in the absence of these, the National Model Design Code).
Again, if the local community gets involved, they can help create local “design codes”, but, and this is important, at the time that the ten-year Local Plan is developed.
15. CLIMATE EMERGENCY
Proposal 15: We intend to amend the National Planning Policy Framework 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.
The proposals aim to take the opportunities to “strengthen the way that environmental issues are considered” through the planning system. However,
... we also think there is scope to marry these changes with a simpler, effective approach to assessing environmental impacts.
If the “simpler, effective approach to assessing environmental impacts” is, well, effective, then it could highlight the opportunities mentioned above. Whether those opportunities are turned into action, is another matter.
However, the planning system … needs to play a strong part in our efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change and reduce pollution as well as making our towns and cities more liveable through enabling more and better green spaces and tree cover.
Nationally, the Environment Bill currently before Parliament will legislate for mandatory net gains for biodiversity as a condition of most new development.
How ‘net gain’ will be evaluated is unclear and subject to interpretation. However, the proposed data and rules driven approach to planning application approval suggests that a more objective approach, and community input, should be feasible.
And the Local Nature Recovery Strategies which it will also introduce will identify opportunities to secure enhancements through development schemes and contributions. We will also deliver our commitment to make all new streets tree-lined, by setting clear expectations through the changes to the NPPF which will be consulted on in the autumn, and informed by the outcome of this summer’s consultation on the England Tree Strategy.
And we are also assessing the extent to which our planning policies and processes for managing flood risk may need to be strengthened along with developing a national framework of green infrastructure standards.
The government must act on the climate emergency. Changing the NPPF to ‘force’ changes to new housing is one way to help. Remember, Local Plans will no longer contain policy; the NPPF policies must be adopted by the new Local Plans. Central control is a good thing, if the policies of the revised NPPF are strong enough.
Again, using the NPPF to drive changes and raise standards.
16. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Proposal 16: We intend to design a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities, that speeds up the process while protecting and enhancing the most valuable and important habitats and species in England.
It is vital that environmental considerations are considered properly as part of the planning and development process. However, the current frameworks for doing so – which include Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal, and Environmental Impact Assessment – can lead to duplication of effort and overly-long reports which inhibit transparency and add unnecessary delays.
Whilst reducing complexity and bureaucracy are to be welcomed, it is likely that local communities, especially those with an ecology focus (which in today’s climate, should be all of them), are going to be concerned at the removal of assessments. All eyes will be on the effectiveness of what replaces them.
Processes for environmental assessment and mitigation need to be quicker and speed up decision-making and the delivery of development projects. The environmental aspects of a plan or project should be considered early in the process, and to clear timescales. National and local level data, made available to authorities, communities and applicants in digital form, should make it easier to re-use and update information and reduce the need for site-specific surveys.
17. HERITAGE PROTECTION
Proposal 17: Conserving and enhancing our historic buildings and areas in the 21st century.
We also want to ensure our historic buildings play a central part in the renewal of our cities, towns and villages. Many will need to be adapted to changing uses and to respond to new challenges, such as mitigating and adapting to climate change. We particularly want to see more historical buildings have the right energy efficiency measures to support our zero carbon objectives. Key to this will be ensuring the planning consent framework is sufficiently responsive to sympathetic changes, and timely and informed decisions are made.
We will, therefore, review and update the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas, to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change.
Discussion of what constitutes “sympathetic” change, particularly in conservation areas, is one topic that is likely to engage the local communities.
18. ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Proposal 18: To complement our planning reforms, we will facilitate ambitious improvements in the energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver our world-leading commitment to net-zero by 2050.
We will also want to ensure that high standards for the design, environmental performance and safety of new and refurbished buildings are monitored and enforced.
Irrespective of the fact that 2050 as a target is too late and not at all “world-leading”, this proposal makes some bold statements. The trick is in enforcement. Of particular interest is the emphasis on local authorities to “be accountable for the actions that they are taking” (or, presumably, actions that they are not taking).
From 2025, we expect new homes to produce 75-80 per cent lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels. These homes will be ‘zero carbon ready’, with the ability to become fully zero carbon homes over time as the electricity grid decarbonises, without the need for further costly retrofitting work.
Local Planning Authorities, as well as central Government, should be accountable for the actions that they are taking.
19 & 20. FUNDING INFRASTRUCTURE
Proposal 19: 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.
Proposal 20: The scope of the Infrastructure Levy could be extended to capture changes of use through permitted development rights.
In order to ‘encourage’ local communities not to object to thousands of new houses in their areas (especially on green belt land), these proposals recognise that a great many planning applications are “held up” by the lack of infrastructure provision (everything from sewerage to schools). So, in reference to the levy that developers are charged:
There are fewer restrictions on how this funding is spent, and we believe it provides an important incentive to local communities to allow development in their area. We therefore propose that under this approach the Neighbourhood Share would be kept, and we would be interested in ways to enhance community engagement around how these funds are used, with scope for digital innovation to promote engagement.
Again, note the emphasis on digital engagement; including community involvement on how that levy money is spent.
There would also be opportunities to enhance digital engagement with communities as part of decision making around spending priorities.
Developers make money when the value of a site increases after construction is complete (‘uplift’). The government wants local authorities to have a share of that money in order to fund more affordable housing and infrastructure..
21 & 22. AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Proposal 21: The reformed Infrastructure Levy should deliver affordable housing provision.
Proposal 22: More freedom could be given to local authorities over how they spend the Infrastructure Levy.
Developer contributions currently deliver around half of all affordable housing, most of which is delivered on-site. It is important that the reformed approach will continue to deliver on-site affordable housing at least at present levels.
It seems that these proposals are relying heavily on ‘contributions’ from developers to fund the development of affordable homes. The problem, of course, is that developers are driven to maximise their profits, and inherently resist efforts that lower profits.
With today’s definition of ‘affordable’ housing as a sale price of 80% of market value (hardly affordable to great swathes of those in need of housing; even mortgages and private sector rentals are hard to acquire in the current economic climate), the developers are reluctant to develop housing that sells at a lower price but at the same time maintains a high quality.
This is the main driving force behind these proposals.
We would also need to ensure the developer was incentivised to deliver high build and design quality for their in-kind affordable homes.
But, it’s not just about housing. It’s also about all the infrastructure needed to support the communities housed in hundreds and thousands of new homes. Developers build houses. That’s all. Hence the term “infrastructure levy”.
Over the past decades, the spending cuts on local authorities have make it exceedingly difficult for them to provide any local infrastructure.
There is scope for even more flexibility around spending. We could also increase local authority flexibility, allowing them to spend receipts on their policy priorities, once core infrastructure obligations have been met. In addition to the provision of local infrastructure, including parks, open spaces, street trees and delivery or enhancement of community facilities, this could include improving services or reducing council tax.
The government is aware, however, that local authorities may, out of necessity, choose to spend levy receipts on priorities other than affordable housing (and thus undermine the government’s demand for more affordable housing):
The balance of affordable housing and infrastructure may vary depending on a local authority’s circumstances, but under this approach it may be necessary to consider ring-fencing a certain amount of Levy funding for affordable housing to ensure that affordable housing continues to be delivered on-site at current levels (or higher).
23. SKILLS DEVELOPMENT
Proposal 23: As we develop our final proposals for this new planning system, we will develop a comprehensive resources and skills strategy for the planning sector to support the implementation of our reforms.
... there must be a fundamental cultural change on how planning departments operate. They need to be more outward looking, proactively engaging with developers, businesses, architects and designers, as well as a wider cross-section of their local communities.
These changes will be very demanding on all concerned. Here the government is acknowledging that local authorities probably do not have the skills, technology, or mindset to implement them. But, they are aware of that and, quite rightly, are taking the opportunity to boost the sector. When it comes to services, especially digital services, it is good to think big.
And the technology in local planning authorities to support modern services is not there – whilst PropTech firms are developing new apps and other digital services that enable communities to engage with development in new ways, in few places can this be captured by the local authority.
We think the English planning profession has the potential to become an international world-leader in digital planning, capable of exporting world class planning services around the world.
24. ENFORCEMENT & REVIEW
Proposal 24: We will seek to strengthen enforcement powers and sanctions.
As local authorities are freed from many planning obligations through our reforms, they will be able to reassign resources and focus more fully on enforcement. Ensuring that planning standards and building regulations are met, whether for new homes or for retrofitting old homes, will help to ensure that we deliver homes that are fit for the future and cheaper to run.
The following statement is particularly interesting. It implies that some planning applications are being approved ‘erroneously’.
And will also consider what more can be done in cases where the Environment Agency’s flood risk advice on planning applications is not followed.
Judicial Review is often the only means by which planning applications may be challenged if they are considered to be incorrectly approved, or not.
We think the proposals set out in the document should remove the risk of judicial review substantially. Most judicial reviews are about imprecise and unclearly worded policies or law. Our plans for an overhaul of planning law to create simple and clear processes and for plans that set out clear requirements and standards will substantially remove the scope for ambiguity and therefore challenge.
Summary, from a Neighbourhood Community Perspective
In the opening paragraphs of the White Paper, the Prime Minister says:
Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places. People cannot afford to move to where their talents can be matched with opportunity. Businesses cannot afford to grow and create jobs.
That actively encourages sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development rather than obstructing it. That makes it harder for developers to dodge their obligations to improve infrastructure and opens up housebuilding to more than just the current handful of massive corporations. That gives you a greater say over what gets built in your community.
Additionally, the Secretary of State adds:
“Our proposals seek a significantly simpler, faster and more predictable system. They aim to facilitate a more diverse and competitive housing industry, in which smaller builders can thrive alongside the big players, where all pay a fair share of the costs of infrastructure and the affordable housing existing communities require and where permissions are more swiftly turned into homes.”
Politicians say what politicians say, but...
if, in (radically) reforming the planning system, the government actually puts into practice the proposals in this White Paper, then neighbourhood communities can have a real voice and influence over their areas.
The ‘but’, and it’s a big but, is that neighbourhood groups/forums MUST embrace digital technology (and that doesn’t mean step-up their use of Facebook and use more Wordpress).
The areas that the government is hoping to address once the planning system is ‘fixed’ include:
Affordable housing, town and city centres, climate change, biodiversity, sustainable growth, the economy, homelessness, schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, public transport, architectural heritage, natural environment, flooding, local highways, parking, street trees, cycling and walking, brownfield land, energy efficiency, public spaces, pollution, renewable energy, woodland and forestry, habitats and ecosystems, conservation areas, protected views, and social injustice.
Something for all the family, and so much more than just boring ‘planning’.
However, the main driving force is the need for the government to provide housing:
Adopted Local Plans, where they are in place, provide for 187,000 homes per year across England – not just significantly below our ambition for 300,000 new homes annually, but also lower than the number of homes delivered last year (over 241,000).
The lack of (so-called) affordable houses is due to a number of major factors aside from an ‘ineffective’ planning system but, nevertheless, reform of said system offers opportunities for much community involvement.
It’s worth noting that “social housing” does not feature in the proposals.
Places affect us from the air that we breathe to our ultimate sense of purpose and wellbeing. This is a question of social justice too. Better off people experience more beauty than poorer people and can better afford the rising costs of homes.
Mentioning air pollution opens the door to important discussion on roads and the lack of affordable public transport, and highlighting social injustice, the appalling sub-standard houses and local environment that too many are forced to endure.
Create a virtuous circle of prosperity in our villages, towns and cities, supporting their ongoing renewal and regeneration without losing their human scale, inheritance and sense of place. We need to build more homes at gentle densities in and around town centres and high streets, on brownfield land and near existing infrastructure so that families can meet their aspirations.
The “virtuous circle of prosperity”, whilst being a lovely phrase, actually boils down to community wealth building and Doughnut Economics.
So, the reform of the planning system points the way to a better economic system.
Facilitate ambitious improvements in the energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver our world-leading commitment to net-zero by 2050.
A target of, as-late-as, 2050 is hardly world-leading, nor is it acceptable.
Introduce a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities, that speeds up the process while protecting and enhancing England’s unique ecosystems.
A huge alarm bell rings from those interested in the environment (and that should be all of us).
Protect our historic buildings and areas while ensuring the consent framework is fit for the 21st century.
Define “fit for the 21st century”.
We will be more ambitious for affordable housing provided through planning gain, and we will ensure that the new Infrastructure Levy allows local planning authorities to secure more on-site housing provision.
By charging developers more for a new proposed “Infrastructure Levy”, the government hopes that more ‘affordable’ housing will be forthcoming. The problem up to now has been that local authorities have been unwilling or unable to secure the affordable housing initially agreed to by developers.
On the renewal of town centres, and the availability of land supply in general, the government proposes to adjust the method by which the housing requirement is calculated in order to create a:
new nationally determined, binding housing requirement that local planning authorities would have to deliver through their Local Plans. This would be focused on areas where affordability pressure is highest to stop land supply being a barrier to enough homes being built.
In general, the proposals are promising us what we would all like to see:
And for our children and grandchildren, our reforms will leave an inheritance of environmental improvement – with environmental assets protected, more green spaces provided, more sustainable development supported, new homes that are much more energy-efficient and new places that can become the heritage of the future, built closer to where people want to live and work to reduce our reliance on carbon-intensive modes of transport.
But, this is the vague bit: Planning applications “should be assessed against a single statutory “sustainable development” test to ensure plans strike the right balance between environmental, social and economic objectives”.
But we know that local authority planning departments are under great pressure – with spending per person on planning and development down 60 per cent and shortages of specialist skills such as design and ecology.
So, austerity rears its ugly head again and threatens to scupper the involvement of the local communities. If local authorities do not have the skills to focus on “design and ecology” then they will fall back to merely supporting planning applications that will now be guided by ‘rules’ directed by central government.
UNLESS local communities adapt to a new role (that is actually far more empowering than the role they currently have) and embrace Digital (with a capital D), local communities will be worse off than they are now.