What is the future of planning?

January 3, 2022

We are delighted to be a Place North West Insight contributor for 2021 and look forward to providing a series of articles on the planning system and topical issues.

For readers who do not yet know us, we are Planning Consultants based in Preston, Lancashire. Headed up by Deborah Smith and Graham Love, we have a team of six consultants working with private and public sector clients in housing, health, education, commercial and industrial sectors across the northwest. We may be small in size, but we are big on experience and are working on some of the region’s most exciting projects such as Pioneer Place in Burnley, the Liverpool Cancer Hospital and Bailrigg Garden Village near Lancaster. 

Our background includes local authorities, private consultancy, housebuilders and contractors, and working at all stages of development from land acquisition to delivery, which is why you can trust our planning insight.

Smith & Love celebrated its fifth anniversary in January, and whilst a look back at key planning changes introduced in this time – of which there have been many – would be useful, we have instead focussed on what lies ahead. 

2020 was a big year for planning change, with the publication of the Government White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ which proposes wide-ranging reform of the planning system. Consultation on the proposals closed in October 2020 and the Government response and subsequent legislation are still awaited.

This uncertainty, combined with the effects of the pandemic, led to some Councils pausing preparation of their Local Plans and evidence base studies but, as the Government has encouraged, the signs are that most are now proceeding and, like Blackburn with Darwen, are producing plans which anticipate the changes. 

What is behind the proposed changes in the ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper?

In the document foreword, the Prime Minister describes an outdated and ineffective planning system, to be replaced by one which is simpler, clearer and quicker. It implies that the under-delivery of new homes in the right places is due to the legacy of the planning system and that reformed process fit for the 21st century, will produce the homes needed to remedy the housing crisis by adopting three key principles or ‘pillars’;

Pillar One: Planning for development – highlights the increasing length of time it takes to produce Local Plans, the complexity of their content and supporting information; and the inconsistency of plans across the country. 

Pillar Two: Planning for beautiful and sustainable places – sets out how the reforms will enable the creation of beautiful places that will stand the test of time, protect and enhance the environment, and help achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Pillar Three: Planning for infrastructure and connected places – describes how contributions will be secured from developers to deliver new infrastructure provision. 

What is proposed?  

The White Paper recommends that Local Plans should move from being solely policy-based to having a more functional role defining how development proposals should be managed and consented to. The role of Local Plans will be to provide greater certainty about which land is planned and/or suitable for development and which is to be protected, that some objectors to the reforms have associated with a system of US-style development zoning. All land will be categorised as one of three types:

  • Growth areas – designation will automatically grant outline planning permission
  • Renewal areas – designation will introduce a form of approval in principle/development order
  • Protection areas – development will continue to be subject to full planning control by application

 Changes to Local Plans

A further transformational proposal is to set a statutory duty for local authorities to adopt new Local Plans within 30 months (or 42 months for authorities with an adopted or submitted plan which is less than three years old). This will follow a new 5 stage process with opportunities for public consultation. The detail is yet to be worked through, but this is a welcome proposal.

The development management content of Local Plans would also be streamlined. Guidance on local design standards and criteria will be limited to clear and necessary site or area-specific requirements, and separate local / neighbourhood design guidance and codes can be produced in parallel. Further consideration will also be given to design quality and the weight attached to it, whereby development proposals following local design guides and codes, benefit from a positive advantage and greater certainty of planning approval.

Sustainable and responsible development proposals

The proposals are designed to support the Government’s commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through energy-efficiency standards for buildings. However, should stronger and more decisive action be taken sooner? A new ‘sustainability development test’ will be used to consider whether Local Plans contribute to achieving sustainable development, and the current process of Sustainability Appraisal will be abolished. Environmental and biodiversity impacts and opportunities will be assessed through a new framework that will speed up planning decisions, and heritage will continue to be protected by an updated framework for listed buildings and conservation areas. 

Proposals to boost housing growth

A new standard method for establishing housing requirement figures will be used as a means to achieve the national house building target of 300,000 new homes annually. The method will consider existing housing stock, affordability, land constraints and opportunities and non-housing development to ensure that sufficient land is identified and housing targets are met. Together with tackling climate change and the future of the high street, this remains the single biggest, and most contentious, issue facing the Government. The housing market has remained buoyant, helped by Stamp Duty relief, through the pandemic, and prices have continued to rise. Tackling affordability and putting the policies in place to boost housing growth, including specialist housing, to meet local needs and in the locations where people want to live, will be a key challenge. 

Increased use of technology

Unsurprisingly, technology will play an important role in future planning. A standardised and digital application process is intended to speed up decisions. Technology will also be used to automate routine processes while interactive web-based plans will ensure that real-time information is available in an accessible and engaging format for the public. In this respect, it is surprising the Government announced last week, that the emergency Covid-19 regulations covering virtual council meetings will not be extended and this is likely to end remote planning committees from 6th May. Extending the provision requires primary legislation, but not doing so may result in delay and stalled decision-making by local planning authorities. 

A new Infrastructure Levy

Finally, developer contributions will continue to be secured through a new ‘Infrastructure Levy’ which consolidates s106 planning obligations and the Community Infrastructure Levy. This would be based upon a flat-rate, value-based charge set nationally, at either a single rate or area-specific rates. There would be fewer restrictions on how the funding is spent and local authorities will be permitted to use funds to secure affordable housing which will no longer be secured through s106 agreements. This is welcomed provided it offers certainty and transparency for developers from the outset. 

The devil is in the detail as always, but in our opinion, if done correctly, a simpler and streamlined planning system can have permanent benefits and help the development and construction industry move swiftly on from the economic effects of the pandemic, and that is clearly something to be welcomed.