New Government, New Decade, What is in Store for the Planning System?

22nd January 2020

For understandable reasons, Planning was not as much at the forefront of the Party Manifestos for the recent General Election. That is not to say that varying views and approaches weren’t offered. Since his days as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has remained one step detached from the Planning System. However, as and when the UK finally leaves the EU, there is a strong indication that Planning will return to near the top of the Government’s agenda. So, what changes have been earmarked and what do we predict will be the Government’s approach?

In October 2019 we were promised the ‘Accelerated Planning White Paper’ which was publicised by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick as helping to overhaul a ‘broken system’ (his words, not ours). It promised ‘radical reform’. The election then delayed the publication. Expect its belated appearance in early 2020.

With regard to other promises made during election campaigning, it will not be any surprise that the provision of affordable housing remains high on the agenda with a suggestion that Councils will be able to use housing developers’ contributions to discount homes bt 30% for people who cannot otherwise afford to buy in their area. This is very similar to David Cameron’s agenda for Starter Homes which never really progressed so it will be interesting to see if this renewed attempt is more successful.

The Affordable Homes Programme (a five year Government Programme running from 2016 to 2021 to deliver more affordable homes) will also be renewed, building more homes for rent and delivering a new shared ownership offer. This suggests that there is a fund, available on application, to any developer and public body willing to deliver affordable homes. This pledge is accompanied by outline plans which will ensure any new housing is supported by essential infrastructure – except a formal publication on both of these proposals in the coming months. The approach to infrastructure will be interesting given that CIL has now been adopted by over 50% of Local Authorities and (lack of) viability of development is already an issue. There is a fine balance between delivering infrastructure and stifling housing delivery. Simply demanding greater developer contributions is not necessarily productive or sustainable.

Always an easy political win is a promise to contribute to further empowering local people to influence their communities and dictate where development should happen. This new Government appears no different and it is clear that the 2010 concept of Localism, now enshrined in the Development Plan through Neighbourhood Plans, is alive and kicking as we move into the new decade. Expect more rather than less on this front.

The White Paper is likely to set out further plans for expanding the benefits of devolution across England. This may well result in more Councils conjoining as unitary authorities (as we have recently seen with Dorset, Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire Councils) or the continuation of sharing resources, something that is now commonplace (normally because of a lack of staff). Identifying the problem is only part of the matter and the suggested approach appears to result in more questions than answers. The October 2019 statement by Robert Jenrick also promised that planning application fees will be ‘reviewed to ensure council planning departments are properly resourced, providing more qualified planners to process applications for new homes and other proposals’. This raises the question of where these planners are going to come from if training opportunities are not invested in (apprenticeships have been introduced by the royal town planning institute, but this merely formalises the current situation of Local Authority Planners learning on the job).

According to Jenrick, the White Paper is likely to include the potential for more fees to be refunded if councils take too long to decide on specific planning applications. Is that going to address the now commonplace practice of Councils messaging their figures by forcing applicants to agree to an extension in time?

An overarching promise of the long-awaited White Paper, signalled by Jenrick, is that ‘local residents will no longer have to contend with a complicated and outdated planning system, but a more user-friendly approach designed to simplify the process’. We have heard this from every Government in the last 20 years yet fundamentally nothing has changed in terms of the speed or quality of decision making from our perspective. How will this Government be more successful?

Overall, there are some predictable soundbites but also suggestions that problems in the system have been identified. It is one thing identifying the problems, it is another thing understanding the root of them, let alone addressing them. At least the failings of the system have been acknowledged, it’s now time for changes to be delivered.

For more information please contact Partner, Nick Cobbold.

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