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31st March, 2020 by Paul Hunt
In March the Government issued a document entitled “Planning for the Future” with the focus very much on the Government’s aspirations to deliver more homes, of better quality and meeting the needs of first time buyers and those who require affordable housing. The paper makes clear the intention to bring forward a planning White Paper in the spring to modernise the planning system and to support the delivery of new homes that local people need. It also states the intention to introduce a building safety bill to ensure building safety and a renter’s reform bill to provide greater stability and protection to those who rent their homes. The intention is also to publish a social housing White Paper.
Of course this document, and the ambitions set out within it, was written prior to the severe onset of the Coronavirus epidemic and it remains to be seen just where the delivery of these initiatives will be left, in light of the Government’s focus to tackle the spread of COVID-19.
Within the document there is, inevitably, much of the same rhetoric about improving the planning system, streamlining processes and accelerating planning decisions. The fact that further reforms are planned demonstrates that previous efforts have not been very successful! In all seriousness, changes create opportunities for practitioners but also risk delays in the system as further changes create uncertainty.
The key message, however, is to deliver more housing where it is needed. Incentives include investment in the reuse of brownfield land and utilising opportunities to build within and near to urban areas.
Measures to extend permitted development rights for building upwards on existing buildings are promised by the summer of 2020. These measures have already been the subject of consultation.
One of the more interesting ideas is a consultation with regards to new permitted development rights to allow vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with “well designed new residential units which meet natural light standards”.
Many of our readers will be aware of the vacant building credit which was introduced partly to incentivise developers to redevelop brownfield sites that contained existing buildings. Some local planning authorities have been reluctant to accept a reduction in affordable housing due to the application of the vacant building credit. For this reason, some authorities have actually sought to resist development proposals that involve the demolition of vacant buildings. This has been a source of considerable frustration for clients, particularly where buildings exist beyond the limits to development of settlements on proposals maps.
It will be interesting to see the details of the consultation and what final form any new permitted development rights may take. Will the Government, for example, resist allowing community buildings to be demolished even where they no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally built, and are not likely to be brought back into community use?
In addition, what will happen in circumstances where more isolated buildings exist beyond the limits to development and which could, therefore, result in a more sporadic form of housing development and potentially give rise to sustainability concerns? The devil, as always, will be in the detail so we wait to see the consultation proposals but a significant opportunity does exist to seek, as part of that consultation, to extend permitted development rights in a way that will be beneficial in terms of removing existing vacant and unproductive buildings and replace them with new dwellings. Inevitably there will be restrictions, such as listed buildings, and safeguards will have to be incorporated regarding the early replacement of demolished buildings with new housing schemes.
The paper supports further use of community build and self-build housing. The latter seems to be an option that more and more developers are exploring for sites that are proving to be more difficult to obtain planning permission for more conventional housing schemes.
At the plan lead level, the Government will seek to impose a deadline of December 2023 for all local planning authorities to have an up to date local plan in place and have expressed a willingness to intervene where they have failed to meet that deadline.
Other interesting measures include a planning application rebate where an appeal is successful, in order to ensure proper consideration of applications by planning committees. This is certainly one of the more interesting and practical measures, although one questions whether it will improve decision making, and reduce the number of instances of members refusing applications against officer advice.
The current difficulties the country faces will inevitably impact on the Government’s programme , including planning reforms, but the need for economic stimulus, including the construction sector, will make initiatives such as those set out in the paper even more important going forward.
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