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What could the implications of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill be for architects?

Words:
Neal Morris

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is expected to come into force in the coming months, but questions around site allocation, plan-making and a redrafting of the National Planning Policy Framework remain

What does the Levelling-up Bill mean for site allocation and plan-making?
What does the Levelling-up Bill mean for site allocation and plan-making? Credit: Unsplash

The Government’s consultation on reshaping the planning system through measures introduced via the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and a future redrafting of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has fleshed out previously outlined proposals for design codes, a new Infrastructure Levy, street votes for neighbourhood development and planners asking for ‘well-designed and beautiful’ proposals.

However, industry reaction to the consultation document for the reform to the NPPF that emerged just days before Christmas has been mixed.

What does the consultation document contain?

Plan-making runs through the consultation. The Bill requires local plans to be prepared over a much shorter period of two years, but while local authorities will still be required to use the existing ‘standard method’ for assessing housing need, the outcome becomes ‘an advisory starting-point’ rather than a mandatory target.

Local authorities will also be able to reject housing judged to be at densities that are ‘significantly out of character with the existing area’, which can be seen as a potential block to all but the most sensitive proposals. They will also not have to undertake green belt reviews even where they cannot meet local housing need.

Some house builders have accused the Government of abandoning its 300,000 homes a year delivery target, while more than a score of local authorities have publicly put local plan development on hold in expectation of a less-demanding plan-making regime. The Home Builders Federation argues that the effective removal of targets could reduce housing output by up to 100,000 homes a year.

Some house builders have accused the government of abandoning its 300,000 homes a year delivery target

Proctor & Matthews ran into questions of density and the character of the area with Historic England on its Impney Village project in Worcestershire, which received planning in 2022. This sort of tension is something the bill looks at.
Proctor & Matthews ran into questions of density and the character of the area with Historic England on its Impney Village project in Worcestershire, which received planning in 2022. This sort of tension is something the bill looks at. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architect

What other policy objectives does the consultation set out?

The Levelling Up consultation and an accompanying policy paper sets out a wide range of policy objectives. Other proposals directly related to project delivery and development control include:

  • A new Infrastructure Levy to replace Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy. Developers will be charged a fee in lieu of providing affordable homes or infrastructure with payment due on completion of the project. Affordable housing providers are warning that decoupling the levy from development sites could lead to fewer affordable homes being built and more income-segregated housing development.
  • A new form of environmental assessment known as an Environmental Outcome Report (EOR) will replace the existing system of Sustainability Appraisals (SA), Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).
  • Local planning authorities will be able to issue development commencement notices to developers sitting on unused planning permission, and completion notices if development is not completed with a set period. There are currently provisions in the consultation text to allow planning authorities to consider performance against delivery in subsequent applications by those developers who fail to meet commitments.

Could the Bill lead to a slowdown in allocation of new sites in some areas?

HAT Projects director Hana Loftus, a chartered planner and designer with experience of writing local planning policy and design codes, says she expects to see a slowdown in the rate of allocation of new sites and plan-making over the next two years. Loftus believes that outside of urban areas and brownfield sites housing development won’t stop, but it will be largely reliant on sites already allocated for housing in existing Local Plans.

Many of the planning elements of the Bill will rely on secondary legislation and Loftus believes it could be years before architects have the full set of technical guidance: 'The process of implementing the planning reforms will take several years and there will be a lot of uncertainty while this takes place. Change will affect different areas at different speeds and affect the long-term pipeline of housing.'

In the longer term, Loftus also believes that a greater focus on design quality and routine demands from planners that sites, at the allocation stage, can be shown to be compatible with the local context and sit well in the local environment. This could be helpful to architects.

She continues: 'Landowners of greenfield sites will have to demonstrate that their scheme is going to fit well and will be supported by the local community, which provides an opportunity for architects to act as their facilitators and enablers. They are going to have to engage with the community much more proactively and do a lot more design work up front to present a positive vision. They won’t be able to identify a site just by drawing a red line on a map anymore.'

Landowners of greenfield sites will have to demonstrate that their scheme is going to fit well

Could the bill have an impact on the provision of affordable homes? Proctor & Matthews’ Little Impney in Worcestershire includes 127 homes, 10% of which are designed to be affordable.
Could the bill have an impact on the provision of affordable homes? Proctor & Matthews’ Little Impney in Worcestershire includes 127 homes, 10% of which are designed to be affordable. Credit: Proctor & Matthews Architect

Look out for National Development Management Policies

One of the more immediate effects of the revised NPPF, should it be adopted, will be the scrapping of the five-year housing land supply test (5YHLS) for local authorities that have a local plan in place.

Loftus says that what is going to be really interesting is the development of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs), which are mandated by the Bill. While the principles and scope of the NDMPs is as yet unclear, the text of the consultation suggests that they could be centrally-set policies covering planning requirements capable of being standardised at national level.

Government thinking is still at early stages, but the consultation proposal is that Local Plans should be focused on development strategy and site allocations.

When it comes to emerging requirements for local authority design codes, also included in the consultation, Loftus suggests that they will need careful thought to avoid either overlap with the NDMPs or huge amounts of duplicated effort within local authorities.

'So many technical design requirements, and good practice design approaches, are (or should be) standardised across the whole country. We don’t need every local authority producing slightly different variations on the same code, it will just create confusion in the industry,' she argues. 'With a well-developed set of NDMPs, supported by coordinated national design standards, local design codes could focus on landscape, local built character and aspects of design that are genuinely place specific.'

The RIBA is hosting a series of roundtable discussions in order to gather views from members that will inform its response to the review of the NPPF. Click this link to get your tickets.

Thanks to Hana Loftus, Director, HAT Projects.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Places, planning and communities.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

 

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