We agree we have a system in need of fundamental reform. We need a system that is not expressly geared towards simply mitigating harm, but instead one that rediscovers its role as ‘an art’ in delivering greater sustainable growth outcomes and facilitating the benefits that these give rise to.

Plan-making

In terms of plan making, we are strong advocates of a ‘plan-led’ system but one that is based on a new approach to housing need, Duty to Cooperate, and green belt, these typically being the areas in which the system falls down.

We would want an independent, universally accepted view of evidence. For all its faults, we need an ‘ONS for the planning system’. It is symptomatic of a system that has in effect collapsed, that so much time is spent by heads of local planning departments or site promoters (and their often vast planning and legals teams) arguing the toss on numbers and forecasts, which takes the professional away from delivering the outcomes, which should be about place.

We were looking for a far more simple and coherent local plan system than we have now, from national to local, with the right decision made at the right level, and made by the professionals who are trained over many years to do this. It is right that we have a Greater London and Greater Manchester focus on strategic planning policy but they, like the coverage of local plans across the country, have taken far too long to come to fruition. We simply do not have the track record in local plan universal coverage, which is why many local authorities rely on Strategic Frameworks, typically produced over a six month period for a variety of settings, town centres, renewal areas, and major strategic sites, to plug the gap and guide development.  Although these are not zones, they do guide de facto development decisions. Why not embrace this and have a ‘live-Plan’ that is updated annually with real time data, and subject to  scrutiny by the Planning Inspectorate. Less planning by politics, legality, and overly drawn out processes where quite often the broader strategic perspective is diluted.

Development management

In terms of development management, much has improved in terms of pace of delivery, but more can be done.

The vacuum of any local plan clearly undermines delivery, but decision taking is still too much of a lottery, with decisions made on a whim. It is right that Planning Committees are engaged, but not as the concluding act. This should be given to the planning judgement of the trained professional. Greater regulation of Committees is needed but if we were being more bold, these could be replaced with Growth Boards charged with the betterment of the place, rather than the site.

Local planning authorities are hugely under resourced, but there is still a compelling argument that a simpler system with resources focused in the right areas, would allow pre-app engagement and determination periods to be drastically improved and better enforced, and the time delays through the discharge of (still too many) conditions to be better managed.

What we have seen today?

On the face of it, it purports to be a quite remarkable and seismic shift in the fundamentals of the current planning system as we know it. The Government's Planning For The Future consultation paper has finally been published and seemingly, 3 is the magic number.

There are 3 focused key areas or pillars. The NPPF remains at the heart of the system with its status more important than ever, although it will need to be revised and updated. The system remains ‘plan-led’ but with very different looking plans. The 3 areas of reform are:

1 Local Plans. All land will be allocated into one of just three types:

  1. Growth - an allocation for growth will act as a form of outline permission for development. Reserved matters, DCO or DCO via NSIP, would be required to flesh out the exact look of the development but in essence the heavy lifting would be done in the production of the local plan. Permission would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Plan.
  2. Renewal - suitable for some development, such as gentle densification. A huge emphasis on the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which will be statutory for such areas. Traditional applications would continue but the plan would have more clout and some types of development could also be permitted automatically
  3. Restricted development - sensitive areas such as AONBs, Conservation Areas and the Green Belt will be protected, with the usual planning application process continuing.

In both the Growth and Renewal areas it would still be possible for a proposal which is different to the plan to come forward.

Within the local plan system, there will be a significant shift in the way housing need is defined locally, with a more top down approach starting from the Government's own 300,000 homes per year target for England (compared with the 240,000 delivered last year). Local plans will continue to be tested by the Planning Inspectorate, but on the basis of a test of 'sustainable development' rather than the range of tests currently imposed.

The ambition is that Local Plans should set clear rules rather than general policies for development. Central Government will set out general development management policies nationally, with a more focused role for Local Plans in identifying site- and area-specific requirements, alongside locally produced design codes. Plans will be significantly shorter in length (an expected reduction in size of at least two thirds), as they will no longer contain a long list of “policies” of varying specificity – just a core set of standards and requirements for development.

Local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will be required through legislation to meet a statutory timetable (of no more than 30 months in total) for key stages of the process, and there will be sanctions for those that fail to do so.

Local Plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, and unnecessary assessments and requirements that cause delay and challenge in the current system should be abolished. This would mean replacing the existing tests of soundness, updating requirements for assessments (including on the environment and viability) and abolishing the Duty to Cooperate and Sustainability Appraisals.

Design Quality, Heritage, Sustainability and Climate Change - the Growth allocation (and possibly also Renewal area allocation) will incorporate a requirement to prepare a design code based on recommendations from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and there will be a fast-track procedure for applications which are consistent with such codes. There is in the consultation document proposed radical changes in the approach to (but not much detail on) Environmental Impact Assessment, wishing to introduce a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities. Changes to historic buildings consenting look fairly minor.

Development value - it is proposed to end the use of S106 agreements with an expanded and reformed CIL (infrastructure levy) capturing all contributions, including on-site contributions for affordable housing. The payment will be at the completion of development rather than at the commencement, as is the case now – a welcome move to improve cashflow. To improve market sensitivity, CIL will be calculated on the site sale value (or equivalent if there is no sale) rather than on the floorspace created. Borrowing against CIL revenue will now be allowed. CIL will also now apply to changes of use through permitted development.

What’s welcome, gaps, practicalities

We asked for ‘plan-led’ to remain and what we have reviewed today is PLAN-LED. And then some.

There is a lot to like coming through these proposals and it feels like a restorative shift backwards to the art of town planning and a greater focus on place outcomes. Taking evidence nationally has merits if local reflection can be applied, but it seems that the ultimately pointless arguments over competing scheme evidence, may have finally had their time.

The front loading of decision making has been becoming more prevalent over the years but the government reforms place enormous emphasis on plan preparation. This is brave when England has never had universal plan coverage at any one time, in fact that coverage has been extremely poor. Yet giving the proposals the benefit of any doubt; if resources are freed up in terms of evidence gathering, development plan policy making, and the embedding of Planning in Principle, then that will undoubtedly help.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges, though, is the retained emphasis on local community agreement being at the centre of the proposals.  Engaging the community has been a mainstay of our planning system; clear guidance is needed on how this can (and should) continue but in a way that allows the rulebook to be agreed within the 30 month period. 

Transition will be important - in our view any plans or applications at an advanced stage should be finalised before the new reforms take hold, which seems to be the intent. In any case, these proposals will take some time to implement, requiring primary legislation, so it's business as usual for now.

It is worth recalling that the above are consultative proposals but they are a clear sign of intent.  Nevertheless, they are not in all respects ground-breaking; the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 was, after all, introduced to speed up the planning system through a streamlined plans system, speeding up the handling of major infrastructure projects and simplified planning zones.  This might suggest that it is the operation and interpretation of the system, rather than the system itself, that needs a reboot. 

How long will the consultation run? 3 months of course.  During that time, keep in touch with CBRE for news and views as we watch how the process unfolds.