The biggest shake up of the planning system since 1947 continues apace with the announcement, on 2 August, of government plans to create an automatic green light for development within specifically designated areas of the country.
Developments likely to be fast-tracked under the new rules includes housing, retail, offices, schools and hospitals.
Under the new approach, land will be categorised by reference to areas designated for growth, renewal or protection and permission in principle (“PiP”), will be granted for development in suitable areas. The government’s clear hope here is that this approach will drastically reduce the red-tape and time taken for determination of planning applications and the eventual issue of planning permission. The current housing secretary describes the current system as complex and slow and a barrier to building homes.
Critically, the announcement is keen to dispel any concerns that fast track equals lack of quality, particularly in housing standards. Good design, environmentally friendly, tree lined streets and green spaces are likely to be the cornerstones of this new approach. The housing secretary’s hope here is that by avoiding what he calls “anywheresville” housing, we will ultimately build better communities.
How Does This Approach Differ From Existing Powers?
PiP is not new of course and local planning authorities already have existing powers under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, to take grant steps to designate housing development on brownfield sites as benefiting from PiP by various means. In addition, powers exist to designate land within a local authority area as a local development/enterprise zones.
This current initiative differs from that previous approach, however, and will take it further by extending this principle to a range of developments and sites (including presumably appropriate greenfield sites?). The main advantage for developers or investors in this context is that once land is designated for growth or renewal then the argument moves away from whether development should take place, to one of what that development should look like. In this respect the government has already mooted the idea of a model design code and a pattern book of designs with which development would need to comply; an idea recommended by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
How Will This Process Work?
More details are awaited as to how this process will work in practice. If, as is likely however, these designations will need to ultimately form part of a council’s local plan process, it is not clear at present how that will speed up the planning process. That is because any apparent delays caused as a result of the current local plan process will inevitably impact on adoption of these new designations. Even if a local plan route is not taken, any decisions on designation will still have to be made following a process which advocates a similar level of engagement with all stakeholders to ensure procedural fairness and subsequent categorisation in an open and transparent way.
Either way, it is inevitable, that any fast tracking of the planning application process on this scale will require more front loading of information to first establish which category of development should be applied to specific areas. That in itself will not be an easy or swift task, particularly with larger strategic sites. Land rarely falls neatly into this or that category and invariably requires an assessment of a range of competing matters and interests. That can include impacts on existing landscape, highway networks, ecological interests and the built heritage as well as other environmental impacts arising such as noise and disturbance.
Further, it seems that land within the green belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty will inevitably be a red flag for development and fall within the protected category under this fast- tracked approach in any event. Presumably, however that cannot and will not prevent separate planning applications being submitted for those sites in appropriate cases in any event?
An Opportunity For SMEs?
For all the above reasons, it is likely that smaller sites (and as such small and medium sized builders (SMEs)), will be the first to benefit from any changes introduced by these measures once introduced. Smaller brownfield sites in particular may be of attraction here, although viability of those sites is always likely to be an issue compared to greenfield sites. Additional government funding (through LEPs or otherwise), to assist with the clean-up of some of the more difficult brownfield sites, which may be heavily contaminated, may therefore need to be an important element of this strategy.
There is no doubt that a build, build, buil" agenda to help protect and create jobs is one of the lynchpins of government policy and seen as extremely important to future economic success.
This is very welcome news for the development industry, but any new approach to the planning process, however it is assessed or undertaken, must also be one which is attractive to developers and investors to pursue. In addition, it cannot create its own unique delays by being a burden for local planning authorities to administer.
It is also essential that the government strikes the right balance here in pursuing its ambitious plans for growth in parallel with the overhaul of the current planning system generally. Importantly, it has to provide certainty of approach given its previously stated environmental objectives (bio-diversity net gain etc), and be clear on what it considers to be the new form of enhanced community engagement with all stakeholders; including existing local residents and businesses.
If it is does not get that balance right, it risks the inevitable delay to delivery of these objectives (through lack of consensus, legal challenge or otherwise), which the government is so keen to avoid.