Planning Policy Review March 2020

Planning for the Future

Quote of the Day:

“The radical invents the views, when he has worn them out the conservative adopts them”

                Mark Twain

Not quite a White Paper, more a Very Important Memo which sets out the commitments we can expect from the White Paper when it actually does come out – it seems that Jack Airey will have his day in the Spring when we can expect radical reform to ‘dramatically’ accelerate the planning system. This will be preceded by a comprehensive review of what does and doesn’t work to implement a comprehensive review of the planning system.

In 20 years, there have been countless pieces of legislation and announcements all pledging to speed up the planning process. This is the first time it feels that it actually might happen.

Not only will we have a Planning White Paper but also a Social Housing White Paper, a Building Safety Bill and a Renters Reform Bill. Collectively this will be aimed at transforming the mechanics of the housing market – if this all comes out within the next twelve months then it will represent probably the most significant overhaul of planning in decades. What seems clear is that, while the Renters Reform Bill will crack down on landlords and improve rights for tenants, the focus is very much back on the ‘dream of home ownership for all’ and not the aspiration for a professional private rented sector. That is not to say that Build to Rent is no longer in favour, but it may have had its’ ‘Mo Mowlam’ moment and those in the sector will need to be pushing against the other aspects of policy, particularly on placemaking and design-coding.

So, what can we expect in the ‘Spring’ (and how long does spring last, just so we have an idea of deadlines for when we may expect the paper to come out? Is it like the Wembley Stadium rebuild, which was promised for the FA Cup Final but no one ever specified which FA Cup Final so really, it wasn’t actually delayed) Given the ‘getting it done’ mantra of this week, I’m putting my money on May 2020 (post-local election) for a White Paper.

The reforms announced today and trailled for the future (excluding those already announced in the Budget) include:

  • Focusing on brownfield through a ‘brownfield register’ to understand land ownerships and regeneration potential. This is not much of a surprise, the bigger question is whether Jack Airey manages to succeed in pushing for a wholesale review of land designation including greenbelt. If this is even a possibility, we can certainly expect the White Paper to come out post local elections to avoid the risk of a collapse of the ‘blue wall’ in the Tory shires for whom greenbelt (regardless of quality, sustainability or logic) is sacrosanct.
  • A review of the formula for calculating local housing need focusing on building within and near to urban areas and planning for the delivery of 300,000 homes a year.
  • Amendments to PDR to encourage and enable building upwards (sure this will go down well in parts of London and other cities) and to allow the demolition of vacant commercial and retail plots to develop new housing. Nothing at this stage on changes to prevent inappropriate PDR or to retrospectively act on those consents which have resulted in deeply unsuitable accommodation.
  • A deadline for all councils to have a local plan in place by December 2023, at which point government will intervene. Given the recent interventions and progressions in South Oxfordshire and other places, this will no longer be seen as an empty threat and is likely to be regarded as a real deadline, which may well stimulate much action amongst those local authorities somewhat lagging behind.
  • Acceleration of the planning system which harnesses technology to give local people more of a role in the decisions that affect them and make it easier for them to engage (very pleased we are one step ahead of this with our own digital consultation platform
  • Reforms of the New Homes Bonus to incentivise greater delivery and ensure access to funding to provide services for new homes/residents. This is a particularly interesting point given that the lack of social infrastructure is frequently cited as a reason for objection by local communities. If this can genuinely be addressed it will potentially change the dynamic but, as ever, if it sits in cash strapped local authority coffers it may well have very little impact.
  • The reform of planning fees linked to performance with – and this is the kicker – applicants who are successful at appeal entitled to an automatic rebate of their planning application fee. It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in committee decisions (if at all); will the fact that there is a direct financial implication which can be attributed to planning committees impact on the way in which decisions are made? Or will it (as in many but by no means all cases) ultimately remain political with councillors ignoring the broader impacts?
  • A focus on zoning to support development , trialling the use of Local Development Orders and enhanced CPO powers for local authorities
  • A little more detail of the First Homes scheme has been set out with the expectation this this will cut the cost of new homes by a third with the discount locked into the property in perpetuity. Government is looking to partner with developers and local authorities to pilot the scheme. What isn’t clear is exactly how this fits into the existing affordable housing framework and requirements.

The BBBBC features heavily with some anticipated measures to embed placemaking and good design with many measures expected to be implemented over the coming months. A slightly concerning sentence focuses on ensuring that new homes conform to ‘local residents’ ideas of beauty’ using the National Model Design Code – if anyone has even been to a public consultation, you will know that there is no consensus view on beauty. Expect lots of Neighbourhood Design Codes (currently being operated in South Cambs) to come forward which may, or may not, support development in that area.

Alongside this, looking at reducing the carbon impact of homes with a Code for Sustainable Homes – no, sorry, scrap that. It’s actually a Future Homes Standard, which surely bears no similarities to the policy formerly known as CoSH.

All in all, as a trailer goes, it’s pretty exciting (if you get excited by planning policy reform that is). Whilst uncertainty is never good for development, there are strong indications that government is taking an informed and inclusive approach which builds on much research and advice over recent years. At the moment, this is all just words on paper without much detail and who knows what politics may knock things of course, the key for the government is to continue to ‘level up’ at the same time as recognising the most severe housing crisis is concentrated in London and the South East. More soon…

For more information, please visit the PLMR website.