Many planning professionals would no doubt subscribe to the view that the planning system needs a period of stability rather than constant review and reform. Government aspirations to make the planning system quicker, fairer and more transparent have, over recent years, seemingly led to the very opposite outcome.
If you were one of those who subscribed to the above view, you may have felt some trepidation when the Government published its Planning White Paper “Planning for the Future” in August 2020. This proposed very fundamental reforms to the planning system including plan making, development management and infrastructure funding. Over 44,000 responses were received in the 12 week consultation period.
Despite the huge number of responses, no formal response was received from the Government to the various consultation representations, prior to announcements regarding a proposed planning bill in the spring of 2021. The indications were that the bill would take forward some of the more contentious proposals set out in the Planning White Paper. Odd that the Government were making announcements on the proposals without even formally responding to the thousands of consultation responses first.
We were repeatedly being assured that a full response to the White Paper consultations would be published and by the end of August 2021, this was imminent. Then suddenly the Secretary of State was replaced on the 15th September and the Department for Communities, Housing and Local Government was renamed and rebranded the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The change provided a suitable excuse for the Government to put on hold all the proposed planning reforms and to introduce a different agenda with a different focus on “levelling up”.
We were then promised a levelling up White Paper which, was published on the 2nd of February 2022, with the title “Levelling Up the United Kingdom”. For those who are unwilling or unable to devote the time to reading the full document (or even skim reading it) there is at least a 17 page executive summary, not that you are likely to learn a great deal from it. No doubt readers of this article will have seen various other commentaries about the levelling up White Paper. It certainly isn’t our intention to try and make sense of what “Levelling Up” is, or is meant to be, as that seems even beyond the Government within the voluminous document that is the White Paper.
The question for us is what has happened to the planning reforms which we understood were to be taken forward within the levelling up White Paper (at least those the Government proposed to stick with)?
Clearly planning is only a part of the levelling up agenda but whereas we were previously provided with a comprehensive package of possible planning reforms, we now have random and disparate references to planning which are almost lost in the 300 page plus document. Readers will no doubt recall that in the Planning White Paper there were proposals to introduce a zonal based approach to plan making, greater digitisation of the planning process, development plans and planning information, creating beautiful and sustainable places to live as well as proposals to abolish S106 obligations and the Community Infrastructure Levy for a national infrastructure levy. The levelling up White Paper makes very few references to planning at all.
It does mention that Community Infrastructure Levy payments are to be focused at the local (Parish) level in terms of expenditure. Much of page 227 (yes a whole page, running over to page 228) of the White Paper is devoted to “Reforming the Planning System”. The comment is made that “The current planning system enables some developers to benefit disproportionately and unfairly from the land they develop. This is why the UK Government is developing models for a new infrastructure levy which will enable local authorities to capture value from development more efficiently, securing the affordable housing and infrastructure communities need”. This appears to allude to the dissatisfaction with Section 106 obligations and the need for a new infrastructure levy previously described as the National Infrastructure Levy. It is far from clear of course as to what if anything the Government intends to do regarding the abolition of Section 106 obligations (possibly nothing) or CIL in favour of such a levy.
Whereas previously the Government were seeking to place more emphasis on the Development Plan and permissions in principal from land allocated in Development Plans (the zonal approach to plan making) now the talk is of greater democracy and public engagement in planning decision making.
If you thought the Planning White Paper was vague in many respects, then the levelling up White Paper is infinitely more vague and very light on print space.
Greenbelt policy gets a mention for those who are interested. On page 211 the Government sets out its commitment for maintaining and indeed enhancing the protection for Greenbelt.
Finally at page 247 under the heading “Future Legislation” it is stated that the Government will implement reforms to the planning system as outlined in Chapter 3.
For those who enjoy looking for needles in haystacks, the task is to find anything that is specifically relevant to the reform of the planning system (whether in terms of plan making or decision taking) contained with Chapter 3 or indeed the White Paper as a whole.
No doubt we will hear more in due course as to whether and how the planning system will be reformed. There was talk of a planning bill (in some form) in the spring but of course the Secretary of State has recently announced that there will not be a stand-alone planning bill now so any planning reforms will be incorporated into wider legislation that will no doubt be part of a levelling up agenda. We will of course update you as and when we know more.
For more information please contact a member of our planning team.
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