Planning reform proposals face criticism

12th Aug 2020

Detailed examination of the Government’s proposed reforms to the English planning system is urged following concerns that measures set out to speed up the process of getting new homes built may not result in well designed, sustainable places.

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Sector commentators have described a proposed new ‘zonal’ planning system that would see automatic approval in principle for developments in designated growth areas as too simplistic.

There are also suggestions that plans to replace the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 payments with a new ‘Infrastructure Levy’ – which will be a fixed proportion of the value of the development – could lead to less money being available for critical infrastructure.

The new rules are detailed in the Government’s Planning for the Future white paper, released for consultation last week, and come following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘build, build, build’ to drive the economic recovery from Covid-19.

CIHT’s sustainable transport panel chair Lynda Addison said that sustainable developments with low carbon transport at their core – of the type promoted in the Institution’s ‘Better Planning, Better Transport, Better Places’ guidance – may prove difficult to deliver under the proposed zonal system.

The proposed reforms represent a “significant change” from the current system, she added, and highlighted concerns over the capacity and capability of local authorities to deliver the required plans at speed, “especially responding to the critical issues of decarbonisation of transport, active travel and provision of local facilities through a zonal system”.

The Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI’s) chief executive Victoria Hills described the system as ‘rather simplistic’, calling for further detail on how it will allow the up front delivery of critical infrastructure and increase design quality. She also warned that “development and house building could stall” while the reforms are implemented.

Under the new system, land will be designated into one of three categories – for growth, for renewal or for protection – within local plans, which must set ‘clear rules rather than general policies for development’.

This means land identified as suitable for growth in local plans will see outline approval for development automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the plan, as long as local design standards are met.

Renewal areas such as on brownfield land will also carry a presumption in favour of development where it is designed in a way that reflects community preferences, while building on green belt land will continue to be restricted.

“The onus will rest on local authorities being able to rapidly develop an effective local plan which will, in effect, be granting planning permission for developments in growth zones without any planning application,” said Lynda Addison.

“Our profession will need to analyse the implications of these reforms including any unintended consequences and respond clearly to the consultation with a unified voice, including what needs to happen to deliver our agenda.”

Government’s proposals also include a new system of developer contributions to replace the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 agreements, which it says would aim to raise more revenue than under the current system.

It adds that the new fixed rate Infrastructure Levy would ‘sweep away months of negotiation of Section 106 agreements and the need to consider site viability’.

Victoria Hills of the RTPI expressed concern that the single new levy could in fact result in less money for affordable housing, sustainable transport and other critical infrastructure.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell warned that the new Infrastructure Levy “places the burden of delivery of all new infrastructure squarely on the shoulders of local authorities, – who under this iteration of the new system would no longer be able to require developers to deliver road improvements or schools themselves, as part of a Section 106 package on a site”.

Also commenting on the reforms, Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport president Nigel Riglar said: “Well designed and inter connected green infrastructure is critical if nature is to recover and the country is to adapt to the already baked in impacts of climate change. Piecemeal designations of land won’t do the trick.”

He added that the Government’s proposals are “cutting the heart out of local authorities’ place leadership role and of the ability of communities to have a real say in local developments”.

The new white paper also places emphasis on ‘placemaking’ and the creation of beautiful places under the reformed planning system. It includes a ‘fast track for beauty’ to automatically permit developments where they reflect local character and preferences, and commits to all new streets being tree lined.

The document adds that a new National Model Design Code will be published this autumn to set out parameters for developments including the arrangement and proportions of streets and high quality walking and cycling provision. This is expected to complement a revised and consolidated Manual for Streets.

Transport for New Homes sustainable transport campaigner Steve Chambers commented: “Just last month, the Government’s walking and cycling plan stated that sustainable transport should be considered from the earliest stages of plan making. We welcomed this statement and intend to hold the Government to it.

“Right now, too many housing developments are built in remote locations with poor public transport, without walking and cycling connections and giving residents little choice but to drive. We will be very concerned if the planning white paper worsens this situation.”

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