James Newcombe Ro7Rfs4Tb I Unsplash
The housing secretary last year set out reforms to speed up, simplify planning c. James Newcombe on Unsplash

IN FOCUS | MPs flag issues with Govt planning reforms

Julia Hatmaker and Sarah Townsend

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee is far from impressed with housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s white paper from last year, intended as the foundation for forthcoming legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech. A bill is expected to be introduced later this year.

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Releasing a 133-page report on 10 June, the House of Commons committee urged the Government to proceed with caution and do more research before progressing the Planning Bill. It noted that public policy think tank the Smith Institute said Jenrick’s white paper is more of a green paper – filled with discussion points rather than detail.

Most importantly, the committee wants a draft planning bill to be released for pre-legislative scrutiny.

REPORT HIGHLIGHTS 

Opposition is brewing. Some background: the committee counts several Conservatives among its members, and several other key Conservatives – including former Prime Minister Teresa May – have come out against the planning reform proposal. It is reported that up to 80 Tories are members of a WhatsApp group criticising the Government’s plans. This could spell bad news for Whitehall and the future planning reform bill.

No three-zone fans here. Chief among concerns in the committee report is the proposal to divide local areas into three sections: growth (areas suitable for substantial development), renewal (suitable for development) and protected (areas with more stringent development controls). Noting opposition from the Local Government Authority and the Town and Country Planning Association, the committee supports nixing the idea.

However, it adds that if the Government wishes to pursue the proposal, then local authorities will need to create detailed plans for the growth and renewal areas to help developers know what is allowed in which zone. This includes heights of buildings, parking standards and the density of development. The committee also wants Whitehall to add a “highly protected” category to the mix, which will have even stronger protections against development.

Not enough time. The committee did like the Government’s push to make it a statutory duty for local councils to create and update planning policies for their area that fit into the National Planning Policy Framework. But it said the proposed 30-month timeframe to draft the initial plans was too short and should be extended. More funds will also be needed to help with the creation of these Local Plans as well. That brings us to the next point…

More money is needed. The Royal Town Planning Institute has estimated that £500m over four years will be needed to adequately fund the Government’s planning reforms. The committee wants Whitehall to try and obtain a commitment from the Treasury for that £500m over four years now. That promise of funding needs to come before the planning bill is even introduced, the committee report said.

Show the receipts. Committee members are not buying the Government’s claim that it can hit a target of 300,000 housing units a year. They want evidence that this target can be met as well as how it will be met.

Let the people have a say. Community engagement is a key part of the democratic nature of UK planning. The committee wants to ensure that the public can still engage with schemes at the application stage, ensuring their views are shared. With lessons learned from the pandemic, the committee also wants virtual participation in planning meetings as well as in-person meetings so that the public voice its opinion.

More data required. Household projection information needs to be updated and used in crafting this new bill, according to the committee. Any such report should also include properties that have been converted and repaired. Also to be included: the availability of brownfield sites and any constraints there are on developable land.

The committee also wants a review of the purpose of the Green Belt and whether it is still worth having, if more areas should be categorised as Green Belt and if more protections are needed for those spaces.

What works for one, will not work for all. Scepticism is strong concerning the Government’s proposal to replace Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy with a national infrastructure levy. The committee wants to keep Section 106, which it says will protect against a possible loss of affordable housing. The Community Infrastructure Levy, on the other hand, could use a rejig, the committee admitted. But it said any national levy would need a localised rate to take local land values into account.

Time limits are needed. The committee wants the Government’s bill to include time limits for the competition of construction and non-financial penalties when those time limits are exceeded without a good reason. It wants a limit of 18 months following the discharge of planning conditions for work to begin on site and for local planning authorities to have the ability to revoke planning permission if it hasn’t progressed to their satisfaction. After 18 months, if the development still hasn’t been completed, the committee wants local authorities to be able to levy full council tax for each incomplete housing unit.

Forget something? It feels like some key issues were left out of the Government’s planning reforms, according to the committee. It noted that there was not much information on what the changes in the planning system would entail for non-housing projects. The committee proposes that Whitehall consult on what these reforms will do to high streets, employment, the environment, sustainable development and transport, and delivery of commercial and industrial property.

THE INDUSTRY RESPONDS

Jon Suckley, managing partner, Asteer Planning: “The report is very detailed and considered and makes some valid, sensible comments regarding the lack of detail in last year’s white paper and the potential consequences of reforming the planning system in this way.

“In particular, the three-tier zoning proposal would be a radical change and currently lacks any detail as to how it would work in practice and affect the planning application process. The MPs’ suggestion of two levels of protection for ‘protected’ areas – thereby allowing some development to take place in such areas, is a good idea.

“While we all want changes [to the system] and we all want greater speed in bring developments to fruition, we do also need to make sure any reform has the desired effect. So I hope the Government fully takes on board these recommendations before bringing forward any final bill before parliament.”

John Barrett, planning barrister, Kings Chambers: “The white paper attracted some 44,000 objections last year and it is now clear that a large number of Tory MPs would reject the proposals if they were brought into law. This all makes for a very politically charged examination of any forthcoming Planning Bill.

“The zoning system is the most contentious of [Jenrick’s] proposals. The so-called ‘growth’ areas would effectively have consent, but it is not clear how this would link up to other legal permissions required to bring forward development – such as environmental impact assessments and so on.

“As a result, there is considerable scope for legal challenge, which I don’t think the Government has really thought through. It would also make the identification of these growth areas in local plans highly contentious in future and risk disenfranchising the public.

“The report raises concerns over the lack of opportunities for meaningful consultation with local people under the proposed reforms. This is a worry, when planning is supposed to be a democratic system.”

Gary Halman, planning principal, Avison Young: “Overall the committee was unconvinced that the proposed new system – which covers a lot of areas, including Section 106 planning agreements and measures to try and make housebuilders actually build out their permissions instead of ‘land banking’ – would be quicker, cheaper and democratic.

“There’s a long way to run on all this. But it’s becoming increasingly widely accepted that, presently, the system is broken. Partly this is down to the system and its complexity, but it’s also to do with resources. It is absurd that at the same time that there is a crucial national drive to get homes consented and built, hundreds of millions of pounds have been siphoned off planning departments budgets resulting is staff shortages, lack of skills and demotivation of remaining staff.

“Having to wait weeks or even months for pre-application advice, and likewise for a case officer to even be assigned to an application, before the determination process gets underway ( which then runs into many months in most cases) is not sustainable and needs fixing urgently.”

Joe Burnett, development director, Network Space: “The proposed changes appear to be a shift towards a more rule-based system which will no doubt be a welcome change for developers, including myself, seeking more certainty and less subjectivity in the application process. Naturally and perhaps controversially, this tips this balance away from a democratic process that encompasses community engagement and participation, meaning localism is likely to lose out.

“It will be interesting to see how things evolve. I support the principle of a complete overhaul, as lots of small tweaks over a long period of time hasn’t really delivered the efficient system we all want, but I hope that the spirit of the previous system is not lost altogether.”

Matt Claxton, planning director, Tritax Symmetry: “It was very frustrating for us that employment land lacks the gravitas housing does in the [Jenrick] white paper. But this committee report clearly states that the reforms do not properly consider how to bring forward employment land for development and therefore gives us some hope.

“For us, the zoning proposals were the most worrying of the reforms. Our large logistics sites require large swathes of land, often close to motorways and often including some Green Belt land. Under the proposals, all of this land would be a no-go area, preventing us from bringing forward much-needed development.

“So the committee report’s call for the Government to undertake a Green Belt review is hugely welcome.”

Richard Knight, director, land and communities, Peel L&P: “It is a balanced report and a strong contribution ahead of the Government’s reforms later this year. We support the need for greater resourcing and are pleased that the committee has identified some important omissions from the white paper, including policies for levelling up, economic development and the need to review the purposes and understanding of Green Belt.

“There remains a lack of clarity over how and where 300,000 homes can be built annually and a risk of slowing down delivery rather than speeding it up. The Government will need to ensure reforms give the answers and do not create extra complications and delays, so that developers like ourselves can get on with creating the sustainable communities and economic growth our region requires.”

Greg Dickson, planning director, Barton Willmore: “What this report shows our industry is that there is still a long way to go in reforming the planning system. More evidence is needed to support the Government’s target of building 300,000 new homes a year, and more scrutiny is needed to ensure the reforms truly improve and enhance the existing system.

“It is unclear what the next steps will be, but certainly for such a wholescale reworking of the planning process the Government needs to set a clear trajectory of action through parliament and to get the detail right before any bill can come into effect.”

Sean Anstee, executive director, Municipal Partners: “Whether it is these reforms or others (and there have been many failed efforts) in many respects the planning system isn’t the issue – it’s politicians who constantly use development as a political game. This means we don’t get the homes we need and leads to poorer planning outcomes. Until this discourse changes, tinkering with the system will make no difference whatsoever.”

Gillian Worden, director, P4 Planning: “The system is not broken, it is robust, however there is a significant lack of education and resourcing, which should be addressed as a priority.  There needs to be consideration for local and regional needs, not a London centric plan.

“The planning system over time has become too political. It is really important that the planning system is engaging, but it is often seen as too convoluted and complicated by the general public.”

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