MHCLG has explained that one of the main intentions for the sweeping ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals is to overhaul and replace the current planning process with a clearer, rules-based system.
The new Planning White Paper explains that increased certainty is key to the promotion of development. In this respect it cites that around a third of planning cases that are challenged on appeal are overturned.
The clear direction of travel here is that MHCLG wants to depart from the familiar discretionary site specific “application and interpretation” of policy by the decision maker, to a more rigid rule-based land use / zoning approach. That is categorised in the White Paper as ‘Growth’, ‘Renewal’ and ‘Protected’ areas.
In those areas the principle of development (or non/development), will be clearly identified from the outset. The role of the planning officer and planning committees will therefore be significantly watered down.
What this means is that where the Local Plan has identified land for development, the intended strengthened plan-led rules-based approach should mean that an application would only need to be submitted to resolve outstanding issues, such as design. It is even suggested that complementary changes will be introduced to strengthen enforcement powers and sanctions so that as a rules-based system is brought forward, communities will be able to have confidence that those rules will be upheld.
Growth, Renewal, Protection
Areas identified as Growth areas (suitable for substantial development) would automatically be granted outline planning permission for the principle of development. Automatic approvals would also be available for pre-established development types in other areas suitable for building.
The consultation suggests that consent in these areas could be provided in the following ways:
- a reformed reserved matters process for agreeing the issues which remain outstanding;
- a Local Development Order prepared by the local planning authority for the development
- which could be prepared in parallel with the Local Plan (linked to a master plan and
design codes); or
- a Development Consent Order under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime for significantly large sites
In areas suitable for development (‘Renewal’ areas), there would be a general presumption in favour of development established in legislation. Consent for development would be granted in one of three ways:
- for pre-specified forms of development such as the redevelopment of certain building types, through a new permission route which gives an automatic consent if the scheme meets design and other prior approval requirements;
- for other types of development, a faster planning application process where a planning application for the development would be determined in the context of the Local Plan description, for development in that area or site and with reference to the National Planning Policy Framework; or
- via a Local or Neighbourhood Development Order.
The proposals provide that speculative applications in Growth and Renewal areas, not consistent with the Local Plan, would still be considered but this would be the exception.
The example cited in the White Paper is where local circumstances had changed suddenly, or an unanticipated opportunity arose.
In areas where development is restricted (Protected areas) any development proposals would come forward and be determined as now, through planning applications being made to the LPA.
The Future Role of Local Plans
The key to enabling a rules-based system to effectively operate, will be the LPA’s in the preparation and production of up to date Local Plans. These will be required to set clear rules rather than general policies for development, with a more focused role for Local Plans in identifying site- and area-specific requirements.
To facilitate such changes, the proposals suggest that Local Plans will need to be built on standardised, digitally consumable rules and data, enabling accessible interactive maps that show what can be built where.
The proposals provide that for the purpose of consistency and uniformity and to improve transparency, decision-making and productivity in the sector, the data will be accessed by software used across the public sector and by external PropTech entrepreneurs.
The Role Of SME’s
There is a clear emphasis in the new White Paper on trying to increase the level and rate of housebuilding by small firms. In the explanatory note accompanying the consultation, MHCLG notes that some thirty years ago SME’s / small builders were responsible for 40% of new build homes compared with 12% today.
MCHLG note that recent surveys indicate that smaller firms feel the complexities of the planning process and its associated risks, delays and costs are the key challenges they face in homebuilding, with almost two thirds of firms surveyed stating that the length of time and unpredictability of the system were a serious impediment to homebuilding.
Clearly, much work would be required (both nationally and locally) for such a seismic shift to be undertaken to the planning system and as always, the devil will be in the detail.
Whilst a rules-based system could positively free up the limited resources of planning officers to focus on the complex and controversial developments that do require major development control input, further resources are likely to be required for forward planning as we head towards a truly rule based/zoning system.