The Planning for the Future white paper published in August 2020, setting out the Government’s proposals for “once in a generation” reform of England’s planning system, has proved controversial. This briefing from the House of Commons Library examines those proposals and the other planning changes already made during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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There have already been several waves of changes to rules on change of use and permitted development rights (PDRs) during the Covid-19 pandemic, with more planning policy changes to come.
For some time, the Government has been signalling its intention to make radical changes to the planning system in England. The Covid-19 pandemic brought about some immediate changes to certain aspects of planning policy – such as enabling pubs to offer hot food takeaway services – while other, substantial changes to the planning system, aimed (the Government says) at creating a new system suitable for the 21st century, are the subject of consultation through the white paper Planning for the Future. The Government also intends to make some changes to the current planning system and has launched a concurrent consultation about that.
Consultations launched in August 2020
Planning for the Future white paper
This briefing seeks to highlight key points within Planning for the Future – those which are perhaps most likely to be of interest to Members and those which have attracted most comment. Readers should refer to the white paper for the detail of the Government’s proposals.
In his speech on the economy on 30 June 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, argued that “newt-counting delays” slowed down house building. He said that, in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, we would “build better and build greener but we will also build faster”.
A planning White Paper had been expected for some time; the long-awaited Planning for the Future white paper was launched on 6 August 2020, with an accompanying press release. The press release sets out in the Government’s words what the changes will mean:
- Local communities will be consulted from the very beginning of the planning process. By harnessing the latest technology through online maps and data, the whole system will be made more accessible
- Valued green spaces will be protected for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree lined
- Much-needed homes will be built quicker by ensuring local housing plans are developed and agreed in 30 months – down from the current 7 years
- Every area to have a local plan in place – currently only 50% of local areas has a plan to build more homes
- The planning process to be overhauled and replaced with a clearer, rules based system. Currently around a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned at appeal
- A new simpler national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions which often causes delay
- The creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings and establishing local design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities
- All new homes to be ‘zero carbon ready’, with no new homes delivered under the new system needed to be retrofitted as we achieve our commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050
The consultation on Planning for the Future’s proposed changes opened on 6 August 2020 and closes at 11.45pm on 29 October 2020.
Section 5 of the March 2020 Commons Library debate pack on housing and planning in England discusses the history and background to this white paper.
Launching the white paper, the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, set out how the reforms would simplify the system, while giving more emphasis to quality, design and the environment, and would support recovery from the pandemic.
Reactions to Planning for the Future’s proposals
The proposed reforms have, though, received a mixed response and have attracted some controversy.
Some have welcomed the proposed changes. In the press release accompanying the white paper, the CEO of Gleeson Homes, James Thomson, offered strong support for the proposals and particularly the commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year. In the same press release, the chief UK policy director of the Confederation of British Industry, Matthew Fell, was quoted as saying that the proposed reforms would allow housebuilders to get to work and good quality homes could help meet climate targets. The Chief Executive of Network Homes, Helen Evans, welcomed the proposals which would (she said) help increase the delivery of affordable homes.
There has, though, been some fierce criticism. In an open letter issued shortly after the Prime Minister’s build, build, build speech, the chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Victoria Hills, voiced concern about the approach that the white paper was expected to take and the “planner bashing rhetoric” and argued that sweeping away the planning system was not the right response. The President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Alan Jones, agreed that the planning system needed to be reformed but branded the white paper’s proposals as “shameful”.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England voiced concerns about how community involvement would work within a zoning system and “missed chances” around carbon-neutral, affordable housing. The housing charity, Shelter, expressed concern at the reforms’ potential impact on social housing. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, argued that the changes would be a “disaster for London” and a “nakedly ideological assault on local democracy”. In a preliminary response to the white paper, the Local Government Association said it was vital that new homes should be delivered through a locally-led planning system and communities should retain the right to shape the areas in which they live.
Review of the current planning system
Also on 6 August 2020, the Government launched a consultation on changes to the current planning system. The consultation closes at 11.45pm on 1 October 2020.
The August 2020 newsletter from the chief planner at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) summarises the proposed changes, which cover four main areas of policy:
Standard method for calculating housing need
The consultation proposes to amend the standard method, which must be used unless “exceptional circumstances” justify another approach. As the debate pack published in March 2020 for a Westminster Hall debate on the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and the Green Belt mentions, Robert Jenrick had promised a review, to encourage more building in urban areas and on brownfield sites. In that Westminster Hall debate, the housing minister, Christopher Pincher, confirmed that the formula would be reviewed.
The standard method currently comprises three steps (setting the baseline, affordability adjustment and capping the level of increase). The consultation document sets out how it would be amended, to include as a new element a percentage of housing stock levels and an affordability adjustment. The consultation document then sets out the detail of the two, amended steps – step 1 is setting the baseline and step 2 is adjusting for market signals – and provides the results of the new standard method, which is a national housing need of 337,000 on the basis of currently available data. An analysis by property consultants Lichfields sets out how the revised standard method might change the housing requirement in each local planning authority (LPA).
Delivering First Homes: planning issues
First Homes are one form of affordable housing. Under Delivering a sufficient supply of homes, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out how LPAs should assess the size, type and tenure of housing needed, including affordable housing, and says that major development (defined as ten or more houses) should normally (but with certain exceptions) provide at least 10% of the homes for affordable home ownership.
Here, the consultation document sets out proposals for setting developer contributions for First Homes. The consultation document suggests that planning applications should seek to capture the same amount of value as would be captured under the LPA’s existing published affordable housing policy within its Local Plan. A quarter of affordable housing on site should be First Homes and the consultation document offers two options for the remaining three quarters.
Threshold for developer contributions
As the Commons Library briefing Planning Obligations (Section 106 Agreements) explains in more detail, planning obligations (sometimes known as section 106 agreements or “affordable housing levies”) are legally enforceable obligations entered into under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended) to mitigate the impacts of a development proposal. The obligations may be provided by the developers “in kind” – by the developer building or providing directly the matters necessary to fulfil the obligation, for example by building a number of affordable homes for an area – or in the form of financial payments. (In some cases, it can be a combination of both). The Planning Practice Guidance on planning obligations states that contributions should be sought from only for major developments, which for residential development means 10 or more homes or a site with an area of 0.5 hectares or more.
Under the heading of supporting small and medium-sized developers, the consultation document remarks that SME builders build the majority of smaller sites, which tend to build out more quickly. It proposes to go beyond the current power to defer Community Infrastructure Levy payments and extend the support given to SMEs in economic recovery by raising to 40 or 50 homes the threshold at which developer contributions would be sought, for a time-limited period which would end “as the economy recovers from the impact of Covid-19”. The consultation document acknowledges that there will be a “trade-off between introducing measures to increase the number of developable small sites and the importance of securing section 106 planning obligations to deliver affordable housing including First Homes”. The Government also proposes to scale up the site size threshold at the same proportion as the increase in the number of homes threshold.
Permission in principle
One of the key planning changes from the Housing and Planning Act 2016 was a new system of allowing the Secretary of State to grant planning “permission in principle”. Planning “permission in principle” is therefore a relatively new process (deriving from the Housing and Planning Act 2016) which grants planning permission for housing-led development. It separates the decision about the principle of whether housing development should be approved from a later technical details consent process. The in-principle matters relate to the location, use, and amount of development on a site. It is expected that everything else will be reserved for the technical details consent stage. Planning permission in principle would then have to be combined with a new “technical details consent” granted by the local authority before development could go ahead. The Planning Practice Guidance on permission in principle identifies the types of development to which LPAs cannot grant permission in principle; major development is outside the scope of permission in principle, unless the site is entered in Part 2 of a brownfield land register.
The consultation document seeks views on extending permission in principle to cover major development. The Government argues here that this change too would benefit small and medium sized building businesses (SMEs). The existing restrictions in the Permission in Principle Regulations relating to environmental impact assessments and habitats requirements would not change.
Changes already made
The Government has recently made various changes to planning rules, some of them in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Others – such as those relating to upward extensions – enact changes that the Government has long advocated.
Some of these changes relate to permitted development rights (PDRs), under which development may take place under a general permission granted by Parliament without requiring an application to the LPA for planning permission.
The UK Government has published a compendium of guidance to local government on coronavirus, including on planning and building safety. The July 2020 update from the chief planner at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) outlines the recent changes. Property consultants Lichfields have also published an overview of the recent changes, with links to articles offering further commentary.
Changes already in train
Business and Planning Act 2020
More changes will be introduced through the Business and Planning Act 2020, which received Royal Assent on 22 July 2020.
The Commons Library briefing on the Bill outlines the changes, which will cover:
- a fast track process for varying planning conditions relating to working hours on construction sites
- time limits for development (extending the dates on which planning permission, outline planning permission and listed building consents might otherwise expire)
- planning proceedings (giving the Planning Inspectorate more flexibility in deciding whether certain local planning appeals should be heard by way of written representations, a hearing or a local inquiry) and
- arrangements for the electronic inspection of the Mayor of London’s spatial development strategy.
MHCLG has published planning guidance to accompany the Business and Planning Act 2020, covering construction working hours, extension of certain planning permissions, making current spatial development strategies available digitally and pavement licences.
The Town and Country Planning (Spatial Development Strategy) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 were laid on 21 July and come into force on 12 August 2020. They make amendments to the Town and Country (London Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2000 and the Combined Authorities (Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2018 relating to how documents are made available for inspection between 12 August 2020 and 31 December 2020.
A new approach to Environmental Impact Assessments in planning?
In response to a PQ in July 2020, the planning minister, Christopher Pincher, said that the Government wanted to see “better planning for nature”.
Also in July 2020, in a speech on environmental recovery, the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, announced a consultation on changing the approach to environmental assessment and mitigation within the planning system, to (he said) “protect more of what is precious”:
Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious.
Delivering this change is what lies at the heart of our approach to future farming policy, our approach to biodiversity net gain in the planning system, and also behind other initiatives like highly protected marine areas that we intend to pilot. Building back greener means what it says, and I want to work with all of you to make that happen.
Media coverage of the speech suggested that some wildlife groups were offering a cautious welcome:
But green groups are concerned the reforms could lead to weaker protections for rare habitats and species. Many are mistrustful of ministers’ intentions, following a speech by the Prime Minister earlier this month in which he appeared to blame slow housebuilding rates in England on environmental protections for rare newts.
Dr Jeremy Biggs, co-founder and director of the Freshwater Habitats Trust, told i: “If the agenda is less box ticking and better science-based conservation action, then that is welcome. But if we hastily ditch protection of threatened species and habitats in the name of planning reform, that will make it difficult to stop the decline of nature, never mind reversing it.”
Other briefings on various matters to do with planning are available on the topic page for housing and planning