Reforms ‘unlikely to prompt’ building free-for-all

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick described England’s planning system as “outdated and cumbersome” as he detailed policy changes to be published this week to allow some development to get underway without requiring formal approval.

The reforms to simply the system, praised by some of the region’s planning consultants, will see land designated either for growth, renewal or protection, Jenrick wrote in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend.

Schemes on land designated either for growth, renewal or protection will not require developers to seek planning approval from the relevant local authority, enabling homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices to be built more quickly. 

Jenrick’s proposed land allocations: 

  • Growth – “Land designated for growth will empower development – new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be allowed automatically. People can get going” 
  • Renewal – “Areas designated for renewal will enable much quicker development with a ‘permission in principle’ approach to balance speed while ensuring appropriate checks are carried out” 
  • Protected – “Protected land will be just that – our Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and rich heritage – will be protected as the places, views and landscapes we cherish most and passed on to the next generation as set out in our manifesto.” 

The reforms aim to streamline what some people consider to be an overcomplicated system and drive economic growth post-Covid-19. However,  some parties have criticised the changes, claiming that they may oversimplify the planning system. 

Tom Fyans, director of policy at rural conservation charity CPRE – formerly the Campaign to Protect Rural England and now known as the countryside charity – said the plans were a “gross oversimplification of the planning system” and expressed concerns the changes could result in the communities’ needs being ignored. 

He said: “The planning process as it stands may not be perfect but instead of deregulating planning, the Government must invest in planning. Quality development needs a quality planning system with community participation at its heart.” 

However, Dan Mitchell, director at planning consultancy Barton Willmore, dismissed talk that the reforms could lead to a development free-for-all. He said the announcement amounted to a move towards “zone-based planning” – a system that could create an “interesting opportunity to build great places”. 

Mitchell said: “It is not going to be a case of ‘easy planning’. There will be all sorts parameters and restrictions in place, set by councils and local people, so developers won’t just be able to build what they want.” 

He said he expected to see councils working more closely with planners to draw up masterplans for specific areas, as a result of Jenrick’s reforms. 

Dan Matthewman, director of Manchester-based consultancy County Planning, said he felt largely positive about the reforms and that fears the system would become too simplistic were likely unfounded.  

“I don’t think it is as simple as it might first seem,” he said. “Several decision-making processes have been replaced with eligibility criteria and prior approval requirements, which still need to be satisfied.  

“It’s a big change and it’s going to have implications for current and future applications that have been in the pipeline for several months, but I think it will largely be effective in moving development forward.”  

Matthewman added that merging some use classes into the same group would make it easier for commercial landlords and tenants that would not have to lodge a change of use application for some new schemes, for example to change from retail to offices in town centres.  

He said: “This additional flexibility should help generate and sustain jobs by helping businesses adapt to the challenges of Covid-19.” 

Both Matthewman and Mitchell said that while the reforms seemed substantial, the extent to which they would impact the planning system would only be known once further details of the reforms are released later this week.  

Roger Tustain, managing director of Nexus Planning, said he had reservations that a zonal planning system would speed up the planning process in the short term.
He said: “Local Plans, or any other statutory planning document, will need to be produced through a democratically inclusive process. Given the powers that these documents will have, the level of detail in terms of policy and design coding will need to be significant to ensure they facilitate socially responsible acceptable development.
“We all know the current Local Plan process is slow, but more detailed Local Plans or Zonal Plans could take considerably longer to produce and lead to extended Local Plan examination processes.”

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