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Here's the low-down on the planning white paper

Words:
Isabelle Priest

RIBAJ summarises the contents of the government’s 84-page consultation document to help you have your say

One of the projects included to illustrate the white paper: Timekeepers Square, Salford, designed by Buttress Architects.
One of the projects included to illustrate the white paper: Timekeepers Square, Salford, designed by Buttress Architects. Credit: Daniel Hopkinson via RIBA Awards

Opinions vary as to whether England’s planning system is broken, but the government certainly thinks it is. Its 84-page white paper Planning for the Future is out for consultation, detailing what it calls the biggest shake-up since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. It probably is. Here’s our stripped back explainer to help you understand the changes and have your say – anyone can do that until 29 October.

The justification for the reforms is that England’s potential is artificially constrained by the planning system which must be better at unlocking growth and opportunity. It is accused of being too complex, not transparent, discretionary, ‘beset by risk’, and too shaped by individual officials; circumstances which favour large developers and the wealthy. It takes too long, with uncertain policies that result in 36% of major application decisions being overturned at appeal. Local Plans intended to clarify take seven years on average to come to fruition, making them ‘effectively out of date’ when they are adopted. They are ‘vague’, ‘verbal’ and only 50% of local authorities even have one. The government argues that consultation is dominated by the same demographics and the voices of those likely to benefit from development are not heard enough. The system relies on 20th century technology and its failings are most evidenced by its inability to deliver the homes England needs for decades and the scant incentive to bring forward high quality proposals. 

 

The justification for the reforms is that England’s potential is constrained by the planning system

Aim
The aim of the reforms is to ‘tear down’ the planning system and ‘start again’. The paper contains 24 individual proposals within three ‘pillars’ intended to ‘streamline and modernise the planning process, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed’. The proposals turn the system on its head, creating certainty for development and giving communities early, rather than reactive, say in their area through local plans. The goal is a simpler, clearer and quicker system that delivers ‘results in weeks and months rather than years and decades’.

Pillar 1: Planning for development
Pillar 1 transforms the planning process from a reactive one based on applications into one where the principle of development is established upfront in renewed local plans that would be developed to a strict 30-month timetable (or the local authority faces sanctions for delay). These local plans are of central importance in the system and would establish the basis, pattern and form of development in an area, identifying site- and area-specific requirements alongside locally produced design codes and standards. 

Local plans will identify areas to meet a range of development needs – homes, businesses and community facilities – for a minimum period of 10 years, with an onus to take advantage of opportunities for economic growth and meet housing targets. Local authorities must apportion all land to three new categories: Growth areas suitable for substantial development; existing built Renewal areas suitable for development; and Protected areas where development is restricted. 

Growth area sites would automatically have outline approval for development (except for areas with major constraints that can’t be fully mitigated) and would include new settlements, urban extensions, regeneration sites and ‘growth focused’ business opportunities areas. Sub-areas would be allocated for self, custom and community led housing. Full permission would be gained in one of three ways with a focus on design and resolving site-specific technical issues: a reformed reserved matters process; local development orders prepared by the planning authority for the site; or development consent orders under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime. 

In renewal areas, there would be a statutory presumption in favour of development for the uses specified, such as ‘gentle densification and infill’ of residential areas, town centres and small sites in rural areas in or around villages. It would be possible for other proposals to come forward, but this would require a specific application and be exceptional. An alternative reform option combines growth and renewal areas into one category by extending permission in principle to all land based on sub-area uses and forms of development. Green Belt would remain.

In this scenario, the National Planning Policy Framework would set out development management policy. Annotation alongside area allocations in local plans would only set out standards, suitable uses and limitations (heights, scales, densities), with the aim of simplifying and shortening documents by two thirds and making them quicker and easier to prepare. Local plans would be accompanied by visually led design guides/codes specific to local authorities or sub-areas, produced in tandem. 

Local Plans would be subject to a single statutory ‘sustainable development’ test, replacing tests of soundness, sustainability appraisal and duty to cooperate, and resulting in fewer requirements for assessment on deliverability and viability. Rather, sites should be informed by appropriate planning and not be included if there is no reasonable prospect of the necessary infrastructure coming forward in the plan period. 

The reforms would also be accompanied by a new standard method for setting housing requirements and distributions nationally (published for consultation separately) to an annual target of 300,000. These are intended to reduce the time it takes to establish the amount of land to release in each area. They would be binding for local authorities to allocate, targeting existing urban settlements and based on relative affordability. It would, however, become possible for authorities to agree alternative housing requirement distributions in joint planning arrangements – for example the mayors of combined authorities. The white paper proposes to maintain the Housing Delivery Test and the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

All these changes will be supported by a new digitally enabled, data-driven planning process, with updates to systems to be considered in the next government spending review. Local plans, policies and codes should be machine readable, map-based and use the latest digital technology, supported by a new template, enabling interactivity, automation and clarity for those proposing developments. 

Development applications will be limited to 50 pages and local authorities will be required to give decisions within a 8-13 week framework or face penalties. The changes aim to make development proposals easier to understand and for more people to engage with the planning process. Neighbourhood Plans would remain and possibly be extended to apply to very small areas such as single streets. 

 

Another project included to illustrate the white paper: Gasholders London, King’s Cross, designed by WilkinsonEyre.
Another project included to illustrate the white paper: Gasholders London, King’s Cross, designed by WilkinsonEyre. Credit: Peter Landers via RIBA Awards

Pillar 2: Planning for beautiful and sustainable places
This pillar is about creating frameworks for quality that reflect local character, preferences and built environments that have stood the test of time, while facilitating modern lifestyles and construction methods. 

Local authorities will be required to use the National Design Guide 2019, the upcoming National Model Design Code on arrangements, building proportions and transport provisions and the revised Manual for Streets as a basis for local guides/codes that identify internationally, nationally and locally designated heritage assets, conservation areas and characteristics, as well important features like protected views. Design proposals will need to be made in line with these documents; however, they will only be given weight in planning process if local authorities can demonstrate they have received effective empirical input from the community about what constitutes good local design.

There will also be a ‘fast-track for beauty’ for schemes that comply with the pre-established principles of what good design is in a place. For growth areas, legislation will be brought in so that a ‘masterplan and site-specific code are agreed as a condition of the permission in principle’ before a detailed proposal. In areas of renewal, the reforms propose legislation to widen permitted development to enable ‘popular and replicable’ forms that densify towns and cities in accordance with design principles, enabling mass manufacture and the modulisation of construction to speed up delivery.

To deliver this, each local authority should appoint a chief officer for design and place-making, and the paper proposes a range of ways to support/monitor local authorities, including through a new body or strengthening of architecture centres. The government will also consider how it can augment Homes England’s objectives to create beautiful places, as well as other recommendations from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The paper also says the government will amend the National Planning Policy Framework to ‘target those areas where a reformed planning system can most effectively play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and maximising environmental benefits’, although it is vague on details, pointing to consultations like the National Tree Strategy and Future Homes Standard instead.

A new framework to speed up environmental impact assessments will, however, be introduced to avoid the duplication of effort and reports. National and local data will be made available digitally to consolidate, update and reuse information, reducing the need for site-specific surveys. On heritage sites, the reforms propose to explore ways in which ‘suitability experienced architectural specialists’ could earn autonomy from routine listed building consents in order to allow ‘appropriate, sympathetic changes’ to listed buildings and sites of interest to upgrade environmental performance and adapt them for climate change more speedily. 

The government acknowledges that such a system will only work if the correct powers can enforce it. It is suggested that the reforms will free planning authority time and resources could be reassigned to that instead.

 

Experienced architectural specialists could earn autonomy from rou­tine listed building consents

Kaolin Court is a recent housing project designed by Stolon Studio in south London.
Kaolin Court is a recent housing project designed by Stolon Studio in south London. Credit: Robert Barker via RIBA Awards

Pillar 3: Planning for infrastructure and connected places
Pillar 3 is about capturing land uplift values and developer contributions to ensure that development is accompanied by investment in local services and infrastructure. Currently this is done through discretionary, locally set planning obligations like Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy, which only half of authorities charge. Both are negotiable, causing delays and making levels of community investment uncertain. 

The white paper proposes replacing both with a new Infrastructure Levy, fixed as proportion of the development value above a threshold. It would have nationally set mandatory rates, charged on the final value of a development based on the rate when planning permission is granted and be levied at point of occupation, with prevention of occupation as a sanction for non-payment. It aims to reduce risk and cashflow difficulties for developers and increase revenue levels nationally, but receipts would continue to be collected and spent locally. 

To support the timely delivery of infrastructure, local authorities would be able to borrow against infrastructure levy revenues to fund projects. On-site affordable housing delivery would, in some cases, become mandatory in-kind developer contributions to cover infrastructure levy liability, instead of Section 106 agreements. To ensure developers are not rewarded for low-standard homes under the levy, local authorities could revert to cash contributions if no provider was willing to buy the homes due to poor quality. Local authorities could also accept infrastructure levy payments in the form of land within or adjacent to a site.

The 25% neighbourhood share of the levy would be kept and extended to allow receipts to be spent on other local policy priorities once core infrastructure obligations are met, including reducing council tax. And the scope of the infrastructure levy would be extended to better capture changes of use which require planning permission and for some permitted development rights including office to residential conversions, although the white paper does not say how. An alternative option would be to keep the new infrastructure levy as optional but consolidate planning obligations into it, potentially leading to higher uptake than the current system. 

The white paper also proposes to explore how government can support SME housebuilders, community land trusts and self-builders to identify public land disposal opportunities and set up development corporations. The final proposals concern how the planning system should be funded principally by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer. Planning fees will continue to be set nationally but a proportion of development contributions will be earmarked for local planning authorities to cover their overall costs, including the preparation and review of Local Plans, design codes and enforcement activities. Consequently, councils will be subject to a new performance framework but they too will receive stronger enforcement powers to address intentional unauthorised development, a move intended to build up trust in a reformed Local Plan-based system.

Have your say
Click here to respond to the consultation, before the deadline of 29 October.
Meanwhile, the government is separately consulting on methods to assess local housing need, temporarily lifting the small sites affordable housing contribution threshold and extending permission in principle. For more information click here

See the RIBA’s five way to get planning right here. The RIBA wants to hear members' views on the proposals. Have your say here

Tell us what you make of the white paper’s proposals at letters.ribaj@riba.org

 

 

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