Changes to the current planning system – Law Society response

The proposals

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is consulting on changes to planning policy and regulations.

The changes are part of a proposed wider set of reforms to the planning system.

The consultation sets out four proposals to improve the planning system’s effectiveness:

  • changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need
  • setting developer contributions for the First Homes scheme
  • supporting small and medium-sized (SME) builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing
  • extending the permission in principle (PiP) to major development

Our view

We welcome this consultation and the opportunity to engage with the complex and much-needed task of planning law reform.

We support action to boost the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic, but hurried reforms will not be sustainable and would risk damage to both the physical environment and the overarching principles of planning.

However radical planning reforms are, they should also be carbon net-zero compatible.

The danger of reforming the whole system at once is the resulting uncertainty, especially in light of the impacts of the pandemic and the end of the transition period for leaving the EU.

Some elements of planning reform can be done more quickly than others, but we anticipate that wholescale reform on this scale would take several years.

A better approach would be for the government to look at the planning system holistically and decide which parts to reform and when.

We’re concerned by the lack of clarity and detail in this consultation. It’s difficult for us to anticipate how positive or negative some of the changes might be without more detail.

The government should be wary of any unintended consequences that could arise down the line.

The standard method

We support the introduction of a standard method so long as the new system remains sophisticated enough to account for the complexities of different areas when generating numbers for housing supply.

We would welcome clearer guidance for local planning authorities (LPAs) on to how to account for constraints to adjust the standard method figure in a way that will produce a figure that:

  • satisfies an inspector
  • meets the duty of cooperate
  • is found to be sound

The small sites threshold

If the small sites threshold is raised for a time-limited period of 18 months, then the intended benefits must be achievable, with the details and mechanics sufficiently thought out and implemented well.

This means considering the inherent complexities and timescales of the planning system.

A more targeted approach might be to introduce viability advice and planning application grants for smaller developers.

To support SME builders to deliver new homes during the economic recovery, we recommend that the government develops guidance that:

encourages LPAs to be more flexible on section 106 obligations

reintroduces section 106BA to help those whose developments have now become unviable

Extending permission in principle (PiP)

Before we can assess whether PiP should be extended to cover major development, we would value a better understanding of what it’s supposed to achieve and whether it achieves this objective.

We doubt that extending PiP will make much practical difference because it’s only once final implementable planning permission is granted that finance is likely to be release.

We suggest that the government consults with lenders on PiP’s value before deciding if an extension is the way forward.

Resources may be better invested in pre-planning discussions and the handling of planning applications more generally.

Next steps

We look forward to working with the government to develop effective new laws that will deliver recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic without unintended consequences.

The consultation closed on 1 October.

The government is analysing the feedback.

Read the consultation on the GOV.UK website