Lest anyone was in any doubt, from the brief reference made in the Queen’s Speech to the Planning Bill it is crystal clear what the Government’s overriding reason for reforming the planning system is:
“Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward…”
So what do we actually know now? The briefing document that accompanied the Queen’s Speech said the main elements of the bill would be:
- Changing Local Plans so that they provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different categories of land.
- Significantly decrease the time it takes for developments to go through the planning system.
- Replacing the existing systems for funding affordable housing and infrastructure from development with a new more predictable and more transparent levy.
- Using post-Brexit freedoms to simplify and enhance the framework for environmental assessments for developments.
- Reforming the framework for locally led development corporations to ensure local areas have access to appropriate delivery vehicles to support growth and regeneration.
As I have written previously on planning reform, who can disagree with the desire of government to simplify and speed up the planning process. But care must be taken to ensure that in doing so, it is not at the expense of locally distinctive places, high levels of democratic engagement. Now more than ever it’s vital that it delivers sustainable development from the widest possible lens and not just the number of homes built in the face of huge economic, social and environmental challenges.
Much of the press coverage today has focussed on the “categorisation of land” and the apparent significant reduction of the power of local planning authorities, informed at present by public consultation on planning applications, to turn down housing developments in areas identified for growth. If this remains the case as the legislation emerges, Councils face an intense period of work needing to resource and progress the production of local plans and detailed local design codes for such zones that fully involve the community, and ultimately to prepare plans that have sufficient detail to allow Development Management planners to have confidence in refusing “the wrong homes in the wrong places” as Theresa May put it and for communities to feel properly involved.
It seems clear then that there will be no let up for local authorities which will be expected to embrace the changes even though; many have suffered year-on-year reductions in financial and staffing resources. Many employees are likely to need to acquire new skill sets around design codes and community engagement for example, and local authorities will need to attract additional employees to meet the Government’s ambitious agenda. It remains unclear about how much additional funding will be made available for them to do so.
The Government’s aims to increase the use of digital technology in the planning system, enabling it to become more accessible and streamlined, was a significant focus on the Planning Minster’s address to the RTPI NW Planning Live event on Wednesday. Universal digitally interactive Local Plans will help to standardise processes, and innovation in digital engagement (as a result of Covid) appears to be demonstrating positive benefits in terms of inclusivity – even in those groups that you wouldn’t expect, which is positive. There is however a danger of going too far with digital engagement which can lead to digital exclusion, and a need to ensure that in introducing new measures it isn’t seen as an excuse to reduce traditional engagement and consultation techniques and what currently works well.
Meanwhile, the Government’s stated end of 2023 deadline for getting Local Plans in place remains. Therefore, the imperative for local authorities progressing reviews of their local plans under the current system must remain to continue to do so as expeditiously as possible.