Planning for the Future – government White Paper

Planning for the Future – the lie of the land in the government White Paper

On Thursday 6 August, Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, announced radical plans to overhaul the planning system in England. The proposals, intended to lay foundations for delivering 300,000 new homes a year in England, were put out to consultation in a White Paper entitled “Planning for the Future” – and they immediately provoked controversy. Here are the key features and links for more details and responses.

The aim, according to the government, is to “streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed.”

One notable feature is the obligation for local authorities to bring forward simplified local plans zoning all land in their areas for “growth”, “renewal” or “protection”. Areas zoned for “growth” will be subject to “substantial development” and will benefit from outline permission, but developers will still need to secure reserved matters permission in accordance with locally drawn-up design codes. 

“Renewal” areas will be deemed suitable for some development, such as densification and infill development, and will be accorded a statutory “presumption in favour” of development. Schemes that comply with locally drawn-up design codes will benefit from a “fast-track for beauty” recommended by the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.

Development will be restricted on land in the “protection” category to maintain the special status of land defined as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, part of the Green Belt or a National Park, where, essentially, the existing planning process will apply. 

New-style stripped back local plans will need to be produced in 30 months (against a current average of seven years) and will have greater strength in that they will confer planning permission to “growth” sites. Councils will lose the ability to set local policies, with all planning policy being set nationally with local plans restricted to development allocation and the specific codes and standards to be applied to projects in the development zones. 

Some housing experts are predicting the use of algorithms in the application of policies; and amid suggestions that Surrey might become the domain of a unitary local authority – it appears that decision-making is becoming more remote from communities. Localism, it seems, is on the ropes.

The plans also include the scrapping of “Section 106”, the system by which developers contribute mitigating payments, and the evolution of the existing Community Infrastructure Levy into a nationally-set levy on development value.

Central government will impose housing targets determined by a “standard method” (another algorithm?) on local authorities – and worth noting especially for Haslemere is the avowed intention that housing numbers will take into account the presence of constraints on growth, such as Green Belt. Given a perception of looming “democracy deficit”, therefore, communities will be well advised to seek any local land-classification changes in good time. 

Another proposal will see developers only facing a requirement to include an element of affordable housing if they are building 40 or 50 homes (this against the current threshold of 10). This change would be for an initial period of 18 months to help smaller developers get over the economic problems arising from the Coronavirus pandemic, it is said.

So what will these changes mean for affordable housing? The government claims to be “more ambitious for affordable housing provided through planning gain”, but doubts are widespread. 

The National Housing Federation, for example, called for clarity on what would replace the Section 106 agreements, which delivered almost 28,000 affordable homes, about half of the 2019 total. Its chief executive, Kate Henderson, asked how a new national levy would enable the much trumpeted “levelling up” of communities. And, according to the local government association for Greater London, the changes are potentially disastrous and could reduce the amount of affordable housing built.

There is restlessness also among backbench Conservative MPs over the disposition of new housing, as it is feared the Southeast is set for a disproportionately large share. Indeed, the Sunday Times of 13 September carried the headline: “Tory MPs rage at housing plan to ‘concrete’ over the shires”.

Clearly, though none of this will happen overnight, vigilance and preparedness are going to be vital in protecting community interests.