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Government planning reform proposals in England

An initial briefing

Proposals for Planning Reform  

RTPI members will be aware that a number of changes or proposals for planning reform in England have recently either been made or proposed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). Summaries of the latest changes are provided by MHCLG in their planning updates for July and August.

There are three consultations currently open for comments on Changes to the current planning system (closes 1 October), the Planning White Paper (closes 29 October) and Transparency and competition: a call for evidence on data on land control (closes 30 October).

The RTPI is organsing roundtables with selected members across the English regions to inform our detailed response to the Planning White Paper. While spaces at the roundtables will be limited, all members are encouraged to email us with comments and suggestions. Please click here for details.

Our one page briefing on the Planning White Paper proposals can be found here. 

The RTPI Presidential team have discussed the Planning White Paper in this video and the following briefing provides our initial analysis. 

Initial analysis  

In April we set out five priorities for planning reform in England, based upon the research and the expertise of our members. We have repeated these five priorities below accompanied by our initial analysis of the White Paper, with bullet points setting out key questions and concerns. Our analysis is also informed by the wider recommendations of Plan The World We Need, our research on the contribution of planning to a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery from Covid-19. 

Our recommendations for planning reform in England

Recommendation One: Invest in place

In our paper, we urged for greater investment in planning as a prerequisite for achieving many of the government’s objectives. We welcomed the government’s commitment to increased funding for infrastructure and affordable housing, but called for a major grants programme to stimulate housebuilding by councils, housing associations and SMEs. We said that investment would help to maintain delivery and stimulate productivity, including in the aftermath of Covid-19. We also recommended that Chief Planning Officers become a statutory position, to enable better coordination of this investment. 

Does the White Paper address these issues? 

  • The White Paper proposes investment in affordable housing through a new fixed rate Infrastructure Levy, which would replace Section 106 and CIL. It would be levied on the market value of the development upon completion, including that delivered through Permitted Development, with local authorities able to specify the forms and tenures of on-site provision. This simplification of developer contributions could be helpful, and the White Paper sets an ambition to raise more revenue than the current system, with land value capture also playing a greater role. However, contributions to affordable housing could be offset by the requirement to grant discounts for First Homes, and the proposed flexibility to spend receipts on "improving services or reducing council tax" 
  • The White Paper does not set out plans for broader investment in social housing, as recommended by the RTPI and the recent campaign from the National Housing Federation, which we support. It also provides no detail on the important role of local authority-led housing delivery
  • The White Paper proposes that local authorities will be able to borrow against the new Infrastructure Levy, but provides no details of how investment will be coordinated at a strategic level (see recommendation four, below). It also proposes that developer contributions could capture a greater proportion of the land value uplift that occurs through the granting of planning permission, and use this to enhance infrastructure delivery. It contains few measures to prevent speculation in the land market, or end the excessive reliance on developer contributions to fund affordable housing and infrastructure, which contribute to regional inequality by favouring areas with higher land values 
  • There is a welcome recognition that these reforms will require resourcing, and the White Paper says that the government will develop a “comprehensive resources and skills strategy for the planning sector”. While this is critical, there is little detail about the specific skills gaps which will be addressed, for example around digital planning, design, net zero carbon and climate resilience. It also states that “the cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer”.
  • It proposes that each authority should have a chief officer for design and place-making, which is similar to our recommendation for a statutory chief planner role

Recommendation Two: Refocus planning on 21st century issues

In our paper, we noted that while housing delivery is crucial, policy must give more priority to other issues including decarbonisation and climate resilience, design and beauty, connectivity and accessibility, wellbeing and public health, and economic growth. We said that housing is currently crowding out other important objectives and preventing a holistic approach to planning, and called on the government to measure what matters by assessing how well planning contributes to a much wider set of objectives. 

Does the White Paper address these issues? 

  • The White Paper is focused on speeding up housing delivery and supporting SME builders through the extension of existing tools such as Permission in Principle, which seek to reduce uncertainty and risk for developers. There are no proposals to support construction innovation, and little recognition of the wider factors that contribute to rising house prices, such as the availability of credit, speculation in land and property markets, and loss of grant funding for social housing. As with previous reforms, the narrow emphasis on increasing the supply of land for market housing risks crowding out other important planning objectives 
  • There is however a strong focus on design quality. The White Paper proposes that local authorities produce local design codes, based on a national model design code and a revised Manual for Streets. While these could provide a better foundation for good design, more detail will be needed on how these can be sensitively applied to different contexts. Significant resourcing will be needed to ensure that design code address critical issues including decarbonisation, climate resilience, health and equality.
  • In Plan The World We Need, we describe how the Covid-19 pandemic and transition to net zero carbon will reshape the UK’s economic landscape. The White Paper contains little mention of how planning should align with local industrial strategies, and how these will in turn impact on demand for housing and infrastructure
  • The White Paper recognises the contribution of planning to both climate mitigation and resilience. It notes that Biodiversity Net Gain will be mandated through the Environment Bill, and that Local Nature Recovery Networks will identify opportunities to secure enhancements through development schemes and contributions
  • The White Paper proposes to “review the roadmap to the Future Homes Standard [FHS] to ensure that implementation takes place in the shortest possible timeline”, and sets out an ambition that homes built under the new system will not need retrofitting. Greater clarity around this standard will be critical when the government responds to the FHS consultation in the Autumn
  • There is no mention of how housing delivery will be complemented with a much-needed national retrofit strategy to reduce energy demand and support place-based regeneration
  • Despite the recognition that planning is central to meeting climate targets, there is little recognition of the need for local plans to be ‘climate ready’. While proposals for a zonal approach make reference to flood risk, there is no specific mention of other environmental challenges such as drought, coastal erosion and overheating. There is also no mention of how low and zero carbon infrastructure will be treated within the different zonal areas. The assumption is that local and national design codes, and national development management policy, will address these critical issues. There is little clarity on the role of strategic planning (see recommendation four, below)
  • To improve the integration of transport with design, the White Paper says that “where locally-produced guides and codes are not in place, we also propose to make clear in policy that the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code and Manual for Streets should guide decisions on the form of development.” There are no proposals to more closely integrate transport and land use planning
  • It is suggested that Local Plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, replacing the existing tests of soundness. A new sustainability appraisal will be introduced subject to a separate consultation in the autumn

Recommendation Three: Display leadership on the digital transformation of planning

In our paper, we called on the government to harness technological innovation to foster more efficient and inclusive planning, building on the innovations made by planners during the lockdown. We said this should include making all planning documents machine readable, standardising terminology and processes across government, developing common evidence and analytical capabilities, and investing in open source tools which can be used across the development sector. 

Does the White Paper address these issues?

  • The White Paper contains strong proposals for a more digital planning system. It proposes that “interactive, map-based Local Plans will be built upon data standards and digital principles and that government will “publish a guide to the new Local Plan system and data standards and digital principles, including clearer expectations around the more limited evidence that will be expected to support “sustainable” Local Plans, accompanied by a “model” template for Local Plans and subsequent updates, well in advance of the legislation being brought into force.”
  • There is a proposal “to move to a position where all development management policies and code requirements, at national, local and neighbourhood level, are written in a machine-readable format so that wherever feasible, they can be used by digital services to automatically screen developments and help identify where they align with policies and/or codes.”
  • These proposals are positive and reflect many of the principles outlined in our shared vision for digital planning developed by the RTPI and Connected Places Catapult. Further details from the MHCLG digital team can be found here. However, these should be framed within a wider discussion which views digitisation as a means to complement, rather than replace, existing approaches to planning.
  • Alongside the White Paper, the Government is consulting on options for improving the data held on contractual arrangements which are used to control land, in order to provide better information to local communities, to promote competition amongst developers, and to assist SMEs and new entrants to the sector
  • The White Paper does not provide details of where common terminology, processes and data could be standardised across government to support cooperation between planners, developers, infrastructure providers and wider audiences, or how planning data and evidence should be governed in the public interest 
  • The White Paper notes that Early pilots from local planning authorities using emerging digital civic engagement tools have shown increased public participation from a broader audience”. However, there is less detail on where non-digital approaches will improve engagement with those who lack the the confidence, skills or resources to use digital technology

Recommendation Four: Provide a clear direction for strategic planning

In our paper, we said that 21st century issues require long-term strategic planning across wide geographical areas and sectors, aligning and integrating the economic, infrastructure and environment priorities of local authorities and other stakeholders. We called on the government to provide a clear direction on the level and scope of strategic plans, supported by place-based infrastructure funds and incentives for engagement in plan-making. We also said that the examination processes must be appropriate for strategic plans in different parts of the country. 

Does the White Paper address these issues? 

  • The White Paper says it will explore whether Development Consent Orders (DCOs) can be used to secure consents for “exceptionally large sites such as a new town where there are often land assembly and planning challenges”. It also suggests a continued role for Development Corporations
  • Outside of these areas, the White Paper proposes to abolish the ‘Duty to Cooperate’ while providing no clear indication of the direction or future of strategic planning, beyond a proposal that authorities can participate in joint planning arrangements to “agree an alternative distribution of their [housing] requirement” and a role for Mayoral combined authorities to “oversee the strategic distribution of the requirement in a way that alters the distribution of numbers”. Without a strategic framework is it difficult to envisage how sustainable patterns of development will be arrived at, and how local areas will be expected to align Infrastructure Funding Statements and Infrastructure Levy contributions with strategic infrastructure investment. These issues will need to be addressed in the forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy and Devolution White Paper.
  • It is also unclear how infrastructure providers will be incentivised to engage in the plan-making process or deliver infrastructure in advance of growth, despite this being a key theme of the Conservative Manifesto. The White Paper provides no detail on how infrastructure providers can engage in the development management process under the new proposals. Beyond the mention of Development Corporations, it also proposes no new powers to enable the coordination of infrastructure with development

Recommendation Five: Support a strong, plan led system

In our paper, we welcomed the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s finding that the emphasis in planning should be on proactive plan-making. We asked government to consider whether fixed time scales and consistent structures were appropriate for local plans, the incentives needed to drive better engagement from statutory consultees, and how local authorities could play a greater role in strategic land assembly. We said that an increased use of zoning was neither practical nor desirable, and later set out four tests which any shift to a more zonal system should meet. 

Does the White Paper address these issues? 

  • The White Paper maintains a plan-led system, but proposes to simplify local plans with maps used to outline where the three new development categories will be located, and with standardised development management policies outlined in the NPPF. The suggested categories of land are:
    • Growth areas: These are suitable for substantial development… ….sites annotated in the Local Plan under this category would have outline approval for development”
    • Renewal: These are suitable for development… [with] ….a statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified"
    • Protect: Here more stringent development controls apply, similar to the current system. These would include areas such as Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Conservation Areas, Local Wildlife Sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space.”
  • The White Paper proposes a statutory duty for local authorities to adopt a new Local Plan by a specified date – either 30 months from the legislation being brought into force, or 42 months for local planning authorities who have adopted a Local Plan within the previous three years or where a Local Plan has been submitted to the Secretary of State for examination
  • There is a strong emphasis on promoting design principles, with an expectation that the use of national and local design guides and codes will become widespread. There are proposals for a new expert body which can help authorities make effective use of design guidance and codes, as well as performing a wider monitoring and challenge role for the sector in building better places
  • The White Paper contains little evidence on how the new approach will speed up planning and provide flexibility, given the likely time it will take to develop new plans and design codes capable of dealing with significant complexity. 
  • There is no mention of a more proactive role for local authorities in land assembly, such as through Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) or Community Land Trusts (CLTs)
  • The White Paper proposes to streamline the planning process with more democracy taking place more effectively at the plan making stage. This will require deeper analysis to answer questions on community involvement in decision-making, the ability of residents to engage when tangible proposals are made for development, and the role of local authority Planning Committees in providing democratic oversight.

This initial analysis along with upcoming engagement with our members will inform our consultation response to both 'Changes to the current planning system' and 'The Planning White Paper' consultations in October. 

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