Boris Johnson has announced what the Government has described as “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War, making it easier to build better homes where people want to live”. The new proposals are expressed to soften the economic impact of coronavirus with the PM vowing to “build, build, build”. They include:
1. The acceleration of infrastructure projects with investment in new academy schools, green buses and broadband with significant sums of money earmarked for:
a. Hospital maintenance, eradication of mental health dormitories, hospital building and improving A&E capacity.
b. 29 road network projects.
c. The schools building project announced on 29th June.
d. Prisons and youth offender facilities.
e. “Shovel ready” local projects.
f. Towns fund to spend on improvements to parks, the high street and transport.
2. Greater freedoms for buildings and land in town centres to change use without the need for planning permission and to create new homes from the regeneration of vacant and redundant buildings.
3. Reform of the Use Classes Order to enable repurposing of commercial premises. An example given is a building for retail use which would be able to be permanently used as a café or office without a planning permission.
4. Pubs, libraries, village shops and other uses considered essential to the lifeblood of communities will not be covered. It is not clear how easy it will be to make this distinction.
5. A “normal” planning permission would not be needed to demolish or rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if rebuilt as homes.
6. Property owners will be able to add additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.
Legal changes to facilitate these changes are anticipated to be in place by September. The Government consider that the changes should reduce the pressure to build on greenfield land by making brownfield development easier. There is an expectation that developers will still need to adhere to high standards and regulations but “without the unnecessary red tape”. Ahead of the Spending Review, the Government has also announced a new strategy to look at how public sector land can be managed, released and put to better use.
These announcements have also come alongside a package of measures to support building across England (some of which have been re-announced) including:
1. A planning Policy Paper in July setting out the Government’s plan for the comprehensive reform of England’s planning system to introduce a new approach that works better for modern economy and society.
2. A £12bn affordable homes programme that will support up to 180,000 new affordable homes.
3. A 1,500 unit pilot of “First Homes”, essentially houses that will be sold to first time buyers at a 30% discount which will remain in perpetuity.
4. The allocation of the £400m Brownfield Land Fund to various regions across the Midlands and North of England.
5. £450m of additional funding to boost the Home Builders Fund to help smaller developers access finance for new housing developments.
6. A huge programme of tree planting.
The announcements have been subject to criticism and some cynicism. Sir Keir Starmer confirms the Labour Party supports a recover plan but there needed to be more focus on jobs. He also commented that there was “not much of a deal and not much that’s new”! The CBI were supportive but reinforced that there should remain focus on rescuing viable firms or earlier Government support schemes could be wasted.
It is also interesting to note what has not been said (although to be fair this might be covered by the planning Policy Paper due in July) including the potential review of the standard method used for the calculation of housing land supply or other concerns raised about how well the duty to cooperate is working, particularly in the context of strategic housing targets with some commentators advocating a return to the regional housing targets.
The challenge in commenting on these announcements is that there is very little detail at this stage and the devil will most certainly be in the detail. As a practitioner with over 25 years’ experience as a planning solicitor, I have heard numerous Prime Ministers and Ministers announce efforts to simplify the planning system and very few have succeeded even partially! We know from experience that changes to law and policy do bring with them opportunities but with new law and policy comes greater scrutiny and risk. Wholesale changes to the existing system carry with them the risk that development is stifled, not accelerated. It also has to be acknowledged that England is a relatively small land mass with a large population. New development will on occasion cause controversy and contentious decisions tend to be made by elected members and can be politicised. A new system will not change that inherent challenge in the planning system. This is, of course, unless Government progresses with a complete overall of the current planning system to something similar to the US style “Euclid zoning” system, where planning judgment and discretion is completely replaced with a strict code; if your proposed development is of a type permitted within a “zone”, great – otherwise, there is no hope for securing planning consent. Moving to this type of system will provide certainty but has unattractive qualities which need to be considered. For example, zoning has the potential to work well where it exists but history suggests it has been piecemeal and inflexible.
Leaving those comments to one side, the development industry (in its broadest sense) will be critical to economic recovery and changes which speed up the period from project inception to development and occupation of buildings are to be welcomed. Flexibility on the use of buildings in town centres is capable of helping to regenerate and reinvigorate areas which have been struggling for some time, that struggle being intensified by Covid-19 with online retail likely to become and remain a greater share of the retail market. However, the boast that this flexibility will relieve pressure from the greenfield development seems very unlikely. The fact remains that the majority of new housing is built on greenfield sites for a whole host of reasons. Relaxing planning laws in connection with the re-use and demolition and rebuilding of commercial property on brownfield sites is unlikely to make more than a modest contribution to relieving pressure for greenfield development.
The funding for the delivery of affordable housing is also welcome although it remains to be seen whether “First Homes” will be any more successful than “starter homes” which were subject to a smaller reduction in market value and less onerous sale restrictions, but have resulted in very few such homes being constructed.
At the end of the day it is important at this moment to reserve judgment. We should welcome the aspiration to simplify processes and systems which sometimes appear to conspire against the desire to build more homes and facilitate the timely delivery of infrastructure. We have only had an aspirational announcement at this stage with no detail of how the Use Classes Order or permitted development rights may be changed. There will also be understandable concerns about how environmental standards will be maintained and Government carbon targets met at the same time as facilitating a vision for significant amounts of new development. We don’t have any detail on how those issues will be controlled, nor any announcements as to how the continued lack of resource within local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will be properly addressed, which remains one of the key concerns to the development industry and the speed in which planning consents may be obtained.
There will inevitably be concerns but I think it is important that we are not cynical at this stage about what the planning Policy Paper until we have properly considered it. It is true that other politicians may have failed to deliver against what in essence is the same agenda, simplifying the planning system. However, as has been said on numerous occasions we are living in unique times and it might just be that this is the economic environment which facilitates positive improvements to the planning system that we would all welcome.
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