Never let it be said that the current Government lacks energy or ambition. Less than 24 hours after the Treasury set out one of the most expansive (and expensive) budgets in years, comes MHCLG's vision for reforming the planning system.

The policy paper, which is snappily titled 'Planning for the Future', provides a handy guide to the changes and reforms that we can expect over the course of this Parliament. The proposed changes are a something of a selection box. Comprising a mix of well-established Conservative aspirations, long-promised white papers and the occasional new policy announcement.

Old Favourites

Let's start with the proposals that have been on the to do list for a little while now:

  • New permitted development rights for upward only extensions are promised by the Summer. These were initially announced at last year's conservative party conference as a way of increasing housing densities. How popular, and indeed useful, they prove to be will depend on how tightly they are drafted - given the focus on design elsewhere in the paper, I would not be surprised to see a design requirement as part of the prior approval process.
  • We have, yet again, been promised a consultation on a new PD right allowing the demolition of vacant buildings and the development of purpose built residential schemes in their place. Demolition and Rebuild PD Rights have been discussed by the Conservatives for years - they were first floated in 2016 when Brandon Lewis was Housing Minister -  but have yet to make it past the stage of a policy announcement. Perhaps a large Conservative majority will be the key to ensuring they actually materialise.
  • Reforming (and increasing) the planning fee structure is once again on the agenda. A revised fee structure has been on the cards for a while now, and is broadly supported by developers and councils alike. Linking increased fees to a council's performance is also likely to be supported by the development industry- who often struggle with the delays that can arise from under resourced planning departments.
  • Introducing automatic fee rebates where appeals are successful is new, and could prove effective at encouraging  members to be more pragmatic when making decisions against officer recommendation, although anecdotal evidence suggests that planning committees may not be all that deterred by the threat of a costs award...
  • There is a commitment to introducing First Homes, a tenure which is already out for consultation, and the Future Homes Standard, which is also under discussion with industry bodies.
  • The Government has also re-committed to introducing national model design codes - which have been on the agenda for a while now.
  • The Housing Delivery Test is here to stay and plans for focusing new development on brownfield sites, around transport hubs and above railway stations make another reappearance. These are also frequent flyers for the conservatives, not least as they should help take pressure off the greenbelt.
  • Promises of greater transparency around land ownership and improved support for Councils to use CPO powers are back on the agenda. As are threats to 'explore wider options to encourage planning permissions to built out more quickly'. All of these initiatives were first floated in the Housing White Paper of 2017.

A Twist on a Classic

We have also been promised some tweaks and amendments to existing policy, to ensure it is fit for purpose. In particular:

  • We are getting another revision to the NPPF, with a greater emphasis on good design and placemaking. This is likely to be tied to a pledge to adopt many of the recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful report - particularly in relation to tree planting.
  • The consequences for Councils who do not get up to date local plans in place is becoming more severe. Those who do not have an up to date local plan by December 2020, will not just face the tilted balance, but will now be at risk of Government intervention. The moves in South Oxfordshire, which I reported last week, now look like they might be a cautionary tale....
  • Brownfield registers are getting a facelift. They are to be centralised into a 'national brownfield map' which is due to be released in April 2020.
  • The standardised assessment of housing need is also being revamped, which is hardly a surprise given the anomalies that occurred during the last update.
  • The New Homes Bonus is going to be reformed to provide greater incentives for the actual delivery of new housing by local councils.
  • Greater emphasis is to placed on encouraging the use of Local Development Orders and Simplified Planning Zones.
  • Shared Ownership is going to be revisited and reformed to make it 'more consumer friendly, fairer and more accessible'.
  • The pledge to build the first NetZero development in the East Midlands is genuinely new. This may end up being a template for those looking to deliver environmentally friendly developments in the future.
  • The policies on building in areas at risk of flooding are also,  unsurprisingly, under review.

Reviews and White Papers

We have new deadlines for two long awaited white papers:

  • The Accelerated Planning White Paper is now due in the Spring; and
  • The Social Care White Paper is now due out 'within the next year'.

The Government's track record for turning it's homework in on time is not good, both of these papers are already significantly overdue. I guess we will have to wait and see if these latest deadlines actually stick.

Money, Money, Money

Continuing the theme of the Budget, there are significant financial pledges and financial commitments throughout the paper. Including:

  • £400 million for regeneration of brownfield land
  • Backing for the Oxford-Cambridge growth arc - including a new spatial framework and a number of development corporations 
  • £1.1 billion for local infrastructure to unlock new housing schemes
  • £12 billion for Affordable Housing 
  • £1 billion for removing unsafe cladding from buildings; and
  • £640 million to be split between providing 'move on' and temporary accommodation for the homeless, and addiction services 

Back to the Future?

Once you unpick it, there is very little that is actually new in the post-budget announcements. In many ways 'Planning for the Future' reads like a greatest hits album of unimplemented conservative policy announcements. 

There are some good ideas, but with the exception of the NetZero Development at Toton, very few of them are actually new or particularly innovative. PD rights for demolition and rebuild were first announced when Brandon Lewis was housing minister in 2016, and many of the proposals to reform planning fee scales and incentivise faster build outs where included in the Housing White Paper back in 2017. 

A number of the more immediate changes are sensible, we do need more resources for local planning authorities and a firm deadline for local plans might encourage a faster rate of adoption, but for the most part, the major reforms that will follow in the Accelerated Planning White Paper later in the year. At which point, we will truly find out how radical and ambitious the Johnson Government intends to ....