Planning reform – bold ambitions but still light on the detail
Without even going as far back as the 2020 Planning White Paper (where over 40,000 responses were made without there ever being any direct government response), it would be an understatement to say that the road to meaningful planning reform has been rather bumpy of late.
Setting aside the challenges triggered by changes in leadership, controversial bye-elections and internal party politics, the UK government has continued to press ahead with planning reform, the most significant and high profile changes being driven by:
• The Building Safety Act 2022, granted Royal Assent on 28 April 2022;
• The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) first published in May 2022, and continuing to work it way slowly through Parliament; and
• The NSIP Action Plan, published in February 2023, which seeks to improve and reform the consenting process for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIP).
Each of the above drivers contain bold and ambitious proposals for change, however, a common thread running through them all is that many of the suggested changes are lacking some crucial details, instead confirming that technical information and other procedures will be the subject of secondary legislation to follow. Preparation of these details and the processes needed to apply them has inevitably led to significant public consultation.
Feedback gathered, but then what?
We have looked back over the past year, and prepared a chart tracking the main planning-related DLUHC consultations.
This shows an interesting, if slightly worrying, trend. Of the 12 planning consultations which closed since July 2022, DLUHC has published only 2 outcome reports, with the April 2023 response on compensation reforms to the compulsory purchase regime taking just over 9 months to appear.
Many of the consultations included have solicited significant numbers of responses (it is thought that over 20,000 responses have been received for the consultation on the proposed changes to the NPPF). Digesting this amount of feedback is both daunting and time consuming, but it also reflects the importance placed on the impact of the changes, and that those within the industry are keen to make sure that the planning system actually works.
Our latest summer reading
The 3 most recently published consultations cover a broad range of topics:
- Consultation on additional flexibilities to support housing delivery, the agricultural sector, businesses, high streets and open prisons; a call for evidence on nature-based solutions, farm efficiency projects and diversification (closes on 25 September) proposes a variety of changes permitted development rights, including in respect of class E commercial buildings (both changes of use and permitted extensions). It follows on from the DLUHC statement issued on 24 July that pledged to provide “new flexibilities to convert shops, takeaways and betting shops into homes that will rejuvenate the high street” and “new freedoms to extend homes, convert lofts and renovate new buildings that will help to convert existing properties into new accommodation”. The consultation contains 66 separate questions, plus a call for evidence led by Defra which sets out a further 22 questions.
- Consultation on operational reforms to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project consenting process (closes on 19 September) seeks views on key changes in 3 areas: operational reform to support a faster consenting process; recognising the role of local communities and strengthening engagement; and building a more diverse and resilient resourcing model. The consultation contains 45 questions set across 12 chapters.
- Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill: consultation on implementation of plan-making reforms (which closes on 18 October) seeks feedback on proposals to make local plans ‘simpler, faster to prepare, and more accessible’. It forms part of the proposals to implement the parts of LURB relating to plan-making, with 43 questions spread across 15 chapters
Even more to come?
There is a real chance that the outcomes of the recent consultations may in fact prompt more requests for feedback and engagement, and more consultations are inevitable in respect of various proposals within LURB.
In the meantime, many of us are anxiously awaiting the detailed information promised by the government in advance of biodiversity net gain (BNG) requirements becoming mandatory for most planning applications made from the end of November. These include confirmation of transitional arrangements, and how the requirements will apply to phased developments and section 73 applications. They also include guidance on exemptions, the operation of the register and the process for approving biodiversity gain plans. This is significant detail and ideally, people will want time to digest it before BNG starts to come into force in November .
Michael Gove also announced last week his intention to require all new residential buildings taller than 18m to provide secondary staircases, but noted that his department would need to ‘work rapidly’ with both the industry and regulators on appropriate transitional arrangements. As with many of the changes, more detail is needed and will follow, and given the safety implications, we can expect further consultation that may demand speedy feedback.
The government’s attempt to reform the planning system may seem unrelenting, albeit with few actual changes yet taking effect. But, it is only through actively engaging with this process (even if painful) that we can seek to influence the outcome, and push for meaningful improvements in our planning system.
And who really wanted to read yet another trashy novel by the beach anyway!
Authored by Robert Gowling and Alexander Aristides.