Feature: Scrapping of the Planning Bill and the Introduction of New Planning Policy through the Levelling Up White Paper

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By Colin Brown, Head of Planning & Development, Carter Jonas

2022 to date has seen much uncertainty for the planning and development world – not, as had long been anticipated, because of a raft of new guidance and policies, but because of the absence of such.

While many were still working their way through the 322 pages of the Levelling Up White Paper in search of concrete policies which would bring about some overdue changes, specifically in relation to housing targets and the provision of affordable housing, we were hit by the rumour that the proposed Planning Bill has been abandoned. And shortly after that came a hint by the new housing minister that the housing targets under the ‘standard methodology’ are to be changed from being mandatory minima to advisory maxima.

For a sector that believed, back in August 2020, that the Planning for the Future White Paper would bring about radical reform, this back-tracking on several levels has created uncertainty.

The likelihood that the Government is proposing to scrap the Planning Bill which was announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech – finally condemning the controversial White Paper to the dustbin – has been on the cards for some time. In one of his first moves as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in September last year, Michael Gove paused progress of the policy to conduct a review. The following month the Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden said that the Government was ‘looking again’ at the proposals within the White Paper, specifically the planned broad-brush approach to simplify strategic planning by ‘zoning’ land for Growth, Renewal or Protection.

This specific policy had already resulted in controversy, not least in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June last year, when the Conservative party lost a 16,000 majority primarily due to planning controversy. It was acknowledged then that voters were concerned over the perceived reduced public consultation that would come about as a result of zoning. Politicians stated that voters had been heard ‘loud and clear’ and that the by-election result represented a ‘warning shot’.

The introduction of zoning would have had a potentially significant impact on the planning system. Currently, Local Plans already allocate sites or designate land for specific uses, in a not dissimilar way to the proposed Renewal and Protect categories. However, the automatic granting of planning permission and ‘permission in principle’ on land allocated for ‘Growth’ gave a strong impression that local authorities would have lost the ability to control development, alongside a considerable reduction in public consultation – something, as the by-election outcome demonstrates, would have been extremely unpopular with sections of the electorate.

On the other hand, in cities such as London, Cambridge and Oxford where large swathes of central urban areas fall within Conservation Areas, the ‘Protect’ category may have resulted in new development being stalled or requiring an application for planning permission as is the case currently. It was clear from an initial read of the Planning White Paper that this variety of sub-categories for different area profiles would have caused confusion.

In this context, it was of little surprise to hear that, following consultation on the White Paper, there will be no Planning Bill. Instead, reform to the planning system will be through a series of ‘tidying up’ measures which will be introduced via levelling up legislation. The recently published Levelling Up White Paper gives some indication as to what planning reforms we might expect: however, it appears to contain nothing as radical as had originally been proposed.

So, what does the Levelling Up White Paper propose for the planning of new homes?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the negative response to the intention to focus public consultation solely on the strategic planning process, rather than on individual planning applications, the Government has committed to strengthening engagement and improving democracy in planning. Its commitment to ‘beauty’ and the proposed creation of an Office for Place are also a reaction to public displeasure in ‘identikit’ housing developments. Allied to the concept of ‘beauty’ is a commitment to ‘protect and enhance’ green spaces, specifically the Green Belt, to support environmental protection and the transition to Net Zero.

Local Plans should be made simpler and shorter, according to the White Paper. Presumably, this aims to increase the number of up-to-date Plans, and follows a growing number of local authorities having paused or halted their Local Plan process. Some were paused as a knee-jerk reaction to the Prime Minister’s strong opposition to greenfield development when speaking at October’s Conservative Party Conference (whilst civil servants were quick to state that there was no change in policy, our research showed that Local Plans were brought to an abrupt halt across the country). Other Local Plans have stalled due to environmental issues such as the moratoriums imposed in relation to water neutrality issues, and some due solely to political indecision.

The Levelling Up White Paper also refers to a model for a new infrastructure levy. This levy would ‘enable local authorities to capture value from development more efficiently, securing the affordable housing and infrastructure communities need.’ Additionally, it outlines ‘Project Speed’, intended to improve the delivery of critical major infrastructure projects, including new hospitals, schools and roads.

The vision which underpins the Levelling Up White Paper is positive; but is it anything other than a vision? Twenty months on from the Planning White Paper, we had anticipated more substance but instead we have a new set of aspirations which may yet be dumbed down further through consultation and political wrangling, as was the case with the Planning White Paper.

In the meantime, the housing crisis is unabated. There is a critical need for the Government to grasp the nettle, review the system, and impose housebuilding numbers on those local authorities which are failing to meet demand. . The current situation is causing inertia, allowing too many councils to duck the issue – to the detriment of families and first-time buyers much in need of a home.

Back in August 2020 we were led to believe that the Government was absolutely committed to delivering 300,000 new homes per annum. That now seems a distant dream.