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Richard Blyth: From Zoning to Zones

In recent years there has been debate and also proposals in the area of zoning planning versus planning by express permission. Now with Liz Truss as Prime Minister, the Government is proposing Investment Zones. Many details are still to emerge but it is useful to outline what we do know at this stage.

The government has published a list of local government bodies with whom it has discussed this concept. It covers nearly all the country at some distance from London, but clearly avoids areas surrounding London (except the Thames Estuary). However, this does not equate to the zoning concept that was first floated in 2020. It seems likely that only specific areas within each participating local government area will be an “Investment Zone”. And we have yet to see the promised formal call for expressions of interest. It may be that not all the current areas will apply and not all applications will be successful.

In addition, it is not clear how local planning authorities which are not counties or unitaries will be involved. There is a risk that a county council would agree to bid for an Investment Zone which would have serious implications for the district council in which the zone is located. There is no reference to district councils in the documentation.

So, what would being in an Investment Zone mean for planners? There are two aspects to the proposals, a policy aspect, and a legislative aspect. On legislation, we can expect the Government to introduce amendments to the Levelling Up Bill which would address its concerns around what is termed bureaucratic EU environmental legislation. The Johnson Government had already proposed “Environmental Outcomes Reports”. We can expect some attempt to alter the Habitats Regulations as well.

It is concerning to look at what wouldn’t be regarded as a “key” policy – such as any attempt to involve the planning system in reaching net zero.

On the policy side, the Government wants to “relax” national and local policy in the Zones. However, it wants to keep a list of what it considers the most precious national policy including Green Belts, design, and flooding. (It hasn’t said what local policy should be relaxed.) Here one might expect that “national development management policies” (NDMPs) might play a part, as envisaged in the Bill. How this will be carried out is not clear. It seems to me it can either say that NDMPs generally apply everywhere but some of them don’t apply in Zones, or it can set up a special set of NDMPs for Zones.

It is concerning to look at what wouldn’t be regarded as a “key” policy – such as any attempt to involve the planning system in reaching net zero. Planning can make a contribution here in many ways including the facilitation of active travel by creating neighbourhoods that are dense and easily reachable without using cars. Also, in the aftermath (hopefully) of Covid 19, surely we should be regarding the provision of opportunities for people to reach public green spaces easily. One person’s “key” policy may be very different from another’s.

The Government proposes that in Investment Zones it would seek to “focus developer contributions on essential infrastructure requirements”. Actually, it would be illegal to ask for developer contributions that are not “essential” to the grant of planning permission. My only reading of this statement is that affordable housing would be excluded from developer contributions.

The government proposes to “reduce lengthy consultation with statutory bodies”. This does require a bit of unpicking. Will the government properly resource statutory consultees to respond promptly? And how will issues such as flood risk be handled? Can organisations such as the Environment Agency give effective advice more quickly? That would certainly be welcome.

To be successful an Investment Zone must involve “additional” development. This term is not explained, but it could mean additional to the local plan, or it could mean additional to outline permission. “Sites may be aligned with existing local growth strategies and transport plans.” Again I suppose that a growth strategy is a local plan. But the reference is permissive. Is there a risk that local plan preparation will become even slower if investment zones are seen as bypassing the local plan? I would guess that there would still be a motive to produce local plans to cover the parts of a district that are not in a Zone. However, it would make the examination of a local plan complicated, to say the least. Given the high costs of local plan preparation and the critical situation of resourcing in planning departments, councils need a strong motive to get on with local plans.

There are some interesting ideas around integrated thinking in the Investment Zones concept. A long-standing barrier to rapid development (of at least equal relevance to “the planning system”) is the difficulty of coordinating investment in infrastructure. It is encouraging that the Government is considering “single local growth settlements” in Mayoral Combined Authorities hosting Investment Zones; “strategic direction over affordable housing funds” and “prioritised access to infrastructure funding”.

Investment Zones present an opportunity for some exciting master planning of key sites to draw critical funding from the public and private sectors. Having a master plan will be valuable to increase investor confidence that sites will retain their value. And it will ensure adequate public involvement in the future of their places.

The RTPI is monitoring the fast-moving situation regarding Investment Zones and the Levelling-Up Bill and you can follow our engagement on our website.

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