Analysing the government’s Planning for the Future white paper

James Blakey is planning director of Moda Living, a build to rent developer and operator

Planning for the Future is an ambitious attempt by government to revolutionise the planning system. There is much to be welcomed but much clarification and debate is required. Will the White Paper lead to a step-change via the Prime Ministers railing-cry of “build, build, build” whilst “cutting red tape but not standards” as hailed by the Secretary of State and ultimately lead to the creation of more beautiful buildings and exceptional places for all?

It’s encouraging to read that the crucial role the planning system can have on people’s lives, the economy, the environment, combating climate change and promoting design excellence is recognised. This recognition is hugely important to the built to rent (BTR) sector as we secure more and more development opportunities and seek to deliver these quickly through the planning system.

The planning system has been lambasted over recent decades as it sought to address a growing number of complex and interwoven development, environmental and social issues which were placed on its shoulders. The White Paper provides an exciting opportunity to rethink, streamline and refine this system.

Many familiar elements remain – local plans, applications, appeals and neighbourhood plans – however, it is clear that government and the Task Force has challenged us with the proposed introduction of a myriad of important changes which will have a clear impact on the acquisition, planning, funding and delivery of new BTR schemes in England.

The Prime Minister highlights the need for people to be able to move to where “talents can be matched with opportunity”. Creating flexibility within the residential market for people to move seamlessly as new opportunities arise without compromising the quality of their lifestyle or the accommodation within which individuals or families live. This is at the heart of the BTR movement and as such, it is hugely disappointing that the potential of the sector is not even mentioned.

There is a continuing preponderance on owning assets whilst the BTR sector is moving forward at pace delivering exceptional quality and flexibility in place making, mixed use intergenerational accommodation and amenity rich inclusive communities. The BTR sector can play a vital role in helping to reach the 300,000-home annual target. Government should explicitly acknowledge this role given the fundamentals of our business model and crucially, our long-term stewardship and quality management of new homes and places.

The proposals within the White Paper come “thick and fast” and it will be fascinating to see how many of these survive through the technical and political scrutiny. There is also a significant amount of additional information to be provided including the publication of a local planning authorities “comprehensive resource and skills strategy” alongside reference to government investing in modernising the planning system via its next Spending Review. These are crucial elements if the reforms are to gain traction and become workable. The ability to work constructively with planning officers who have the time and energy to engage on the preparation of substantial regeneration projects is key to whether the planning reforms will be a success.

The funding of the planning system also needs a carefully crafted strategy and the planning reforms reference the potential use of the new consolidated “Infrastructure Levy” to pay for core planning services including the revamped local plan process which will undoubtedly require substantial additional resource from all parties. The payment of substantial planning application fees plus planning performance agreement contributions often result in sums payable to the local authority in excess of £150,000.

The White Paper cross-references a significant number of documents which will become available over the coming months including the National Model Design Code, the revised Manual for Streets, the Future Homes Standard, form based development types, revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework, the potential for a new design expert body to be created, a new local authority performance framework and clarity around how the new sustainable development test will operate. It is clear that there is a substantial amount of additional information to be published before the planning reforms can be fully assessed.

The White Paper also states that the Planning Inspectorate and statutory consultees should become more self-financing through new charging mechanisms. It is crucial that a co-ordinated approach is adopted to ensure that the already expensive costs of pursuing planning proposals are not further inflated.

So will it boost the building sector?

A fundamental element of the planning reforms is to “build, build, build” via a more streamlined local plan process. Much was made of a radical move towards “zoning” and the reforms include a three-tier system focused on Growth, Renewal and Protected. Whether this is radically different from the current approach can be debated but one element, which is radically different is the proposal within Growth areas to automatically grant outline planning permission for substantial development on allocated sites on the date the local plan is adopted.

The definition of “substantial development” has not been defined but the suggestion is that this will be set nationally. The allocation (or zoning) of substantial development sites through the local plan process will include thresholds on height, scale and density. Once an automatic outline permission has been granted, the White Paper makes clear that subsequent detailed matters should be dealt with by officers via delegated powers so no further Member or local community involvement.

So how do we as developers, landowners and operators optimise and safeguard the development potential of an area or site via the local plan process? How is the local planning authority going to resource this process which could result in a large number of outline planning permissions all being granted on the same day? In addition, there is the question of local engagement, with local political parties, communities and individuals needing to become which more organised at the local plan stage as this may be their only opportunity to have their voices heard.

It is hard to see how the local plan process will become streamlined, more efficient and certain given the amount of detail and debate which will be required to either optimise the regeneration of a “substantial development” site or mount a comprehensive opposition. The White Paper targets the completion of the revamped local plans by the end of this Parliament (Spring 24) which will require a huge step-change and major funding commitments to come forward very quickly.

The use of technology within the planning system is welcomed and is long overdue however, professional judgment via the planning balance will continue to be hugely important. Planning decisions cannot be left to an algorithm. This is a further reason why comprehensive resourcing and investment into the planning system is crucial in order to deliver beautiful buildings and exceptional places.

Lastly, the consolidated Infrastructure Levy which is intended to replace the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 Agreements has the potential to create much sensitive debate and discussion. It is important to recognise that the Section 106 Agreement mechanism is there to mitigate the impact of development and often contains a raft of obligations and controls which are not monetary. It is difficult at this stage to see how Section 106 Agreements can be phased out altogether without being replaced by a form of local agreement. It is also difficult to see how the Infrastructure Levy rate set nationally could realistically account for all the many sites across the country each with their own special characteristics and personalities. There’s a fear that high value areas will receive more levy monies than low valve areas.

To conclude

There appears to be a genuine commitment from government to initiate change. The White Paper has generated significant debate via a clear recognition that the planning system and the people that work within the system have a crucial role to play. The vast majority of the White Paper is focused on the challenge of delivering new quality homes and in this context, government has missed a tremendous opportunity to recognise the extraordinary potential of the BTR sector. At Moda Living, we are determined to approach the reforms with an open mind and press government to enthusiastically accept that our sector is an excellent model that creates beautiful buildings and exceptional places for all whilst enabling people to move seamlessly so their “talents can be matched with opportunity”.