COMMENT | Jenrick reforms useful, but no change on housing

If the proposals are put in place, it will be interesting to see if the local plan process does become more simplified and is able to progress at pace, writes Sebastian Tibenham of Pegasus Group.

The Government has released its proposed major reforms to the planning system. The aim is to simplify the entire planning process to make it more transparent and open for communities – in particular, SME housebuilders, which often criticise the current process for being too complex.

The proposals seek to speed up the production of local plans and put in place a more zoned approach to planning, reducing the need for bespoke planning permissions by increasing the use of permission in principle, and simplifying the use and legislation around developer contributions by introducing a standardised ‘infrastructure levy’.

The intended output is to deliver more homes, more affordable homes, more energy efficient homes and high quality built and natural environments.

One of the critical changes put forward is in relation to the outputs of the local plan process, which must now need to identify three different types of land:

  • Growth Areas – these will include “land suitable for substantial development”, according to the Government. It would include urban extensions, new settlements, and areas for redevelopment such as former industrial areas or areas clustered around universities, for example. Such sites would have to be annotated on the local plan proposals map and, once adopted, would benefit from [automatic] planning consent, in principle.
  • Renewal Areas – these would include “land suitable for development”. It would typically include existing built-up areas such as town centres, existing residential areas and small development sites within or on the edge of villages, where “gently densification and infilling” would be appropriate. It is these areas that are likely to benefit the most from the Government’s recent changes to the permitted development rights orders that allow for additional storeys to be added to existing homes.
  • Protected Areas – much like the current system, these would include recognised national designations such as Green Belt, AONBs, National Parks and local designations such as Local Wildlife Sites or Local Green Spaces, as well as open countryside not designated as a growth or renewal area.

These are interesting proposals. If they are put in place, it will be interesting to see if the local plan process does become more simplified and is able to progress at pace.

Unanswered questions

The suggestion that Growth Areas will obtain a planning permission in principle is a welcomed approach. It does raise the question as to whether land promotors will need to provide more detail at the local plan stage to demonstrate deliverability, in order to benefit from this principle.

It will also be interesting to see how the Government defines “sustainable development”. For instance, will this automatically include objectives associated with delivering zero-carbon homes and a certain amount of affordable homes?

It also raises the question as to whether developers would still need to apply for planning permission if they wanted to deviate away from a site allocation policy requirement in any way – even if that change was for valid reasons associated with viability or technical constraints not foreseen when the local plan was prepared.

The details released so far suggest this would indeed be the case but that it would be a rare occurrence. Would a level of flexibility be allowed – for instance, could a Growth Area defined for 500 homes actually deliver 550 homes if all other design requirements were met, or would this need a new permission?

The Government is also proposing to change the Standard Methodology for calculating local housing needs. If adopted in its proposed form, this would result in a slight uplift for the North West over the current Standard Methodology approach (24,631 homes per annum compared to 20,885 per annum).

However, this is actually less than the annual requirements planned for in adopted and emerging local plans within the North West and largely on a par with the regional housing requirements set out in the regional planning strategy revoked by the Government several years ago.

Closing the North-South homes gap

Even though the proposed new approach irons out some of the issues associated with the current approach, it still fundamentally fails to pick up on the significant steps that have been achieved across regional cities and their hinterlands within the North West, and, ultimately the growth potential of the region.

The proposed approach still favours London and the South for delivering growth rather than seeking to provide a more equitable level of growth for the North of England. For instance, London’s growth under the current approach is around 70,500 homes per year, but this figure leaps to around 93,500 per annum under the proposed approach – a significant step change.

Why would the Government adopt an approach that does not afford a step change to the northern regional cities as well? Indeed, Greater Manchester’s housing requirement reduces under the proposed changes, despite clear appetite among investors for growth within the city region.

Under the current approach, London and the south of England are provided with 69% of the overall required annual housing growth for the country. It is telling that this figure remains the same under the new approach, with the Midlands and North of the country making up just 31%. This is despite the fact that the Midlands and North accommodate 47% of the country’s households and have some of the poorest and undersized housing stock available.

I do not see how the proposed changes to the Standard Methodology actually change anything when it comes to the persistent North-South divide that relates to housing growth, investment and spending, and the Government’s pledge to ‘level up’ the North.

I often feel like a broken record on this topic, but I genuinely believed that this Government would have put forward an approach that addressed this issue.

Hopefully, those that represent, live and work within the North and Midlands will make their voices heard as part of the consultation process that runs until 1 October.

Sebastian Tibenham is executive director of Pegasus Group’s Manchester office

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