MHCLG consultation on planning for the future – Law Society response

The proposals

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is consulting on wholescale reforms to the planning system.

The proposals include:

  • simplifying and digitising local plans
  • setting out national general development management policies
  • introducing a standard method for establishing housing requirements
  • replacing legal and policy tests for local plans with a consolidated ‘sustainable development’ test
  • replacing the community infrastructure levy and section 106 planning obligations with a consolidated infrastructure levy (charged as a fixed proportion of development value above a threshold)

Our view

Any successful reform of the planning system must be accompanied by adequate funding and resourcing of local authorities.

The risk of reforming the whole system at once is the resulting uncertainty, especially in light of the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the end of the transition period for leaving the European Union at the end of the year.

Simplifying local plans

We welcome the prospect of simplifying local plans, but a new ‘traffic light’ approach to land designation should not overlook the inherent complexities of different areas and the planning process.

Climate change and sustainable development

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

It’s crucial to consider the reconciliation between what will be in this new planning legislation and what the Climate Change Act 2008 (and other efforts to reduce the impact of climate change) requires.

Planning law can and should play an essential part in achieving the UK’s climate change goals.

We acknowledge that establishing a universal definition of ‘sustainable development’ is a significant challenge, as sustainability is a complex multi-faceted concept that will mean different things to different people.

A clear legal definition would help prevent practical misapplication and misuse of the new test.

Centralised decision-making

Many of the white paper’s proposals envisage implementing centralised approaches at UK government level.

Whilst this can enable a standardised approach, we’re concerned that too much centralised decision-making could lead to the needs of local communities and local democracy not being properly reflected in the new system.

It’s important to make sure that the nuances of local, community and democratic elements of planning are not lost in an overarching, standardised system.

Developer contributions

We see no reason in principle why the proposed infrastructure levy could not replace the community infrastructure levy with an improved form of levy that is simpler, more transparent and works effectively to deliver high-quality development that meets planning objectives.

However, we take the view that narrowing the scope of, and setting out what matters are appropriate for, section 106 is preferable to replacing it entirely with a new infrastructure levy.

Our experience from both the private and public sectors is that section 106 enables flexibility in decision making to achieve better planning outcomes.

What this means for solicitors

Due to the lack of clarity and detail provided in the white paper, it’s difficult for us to anticipate at this stage what impact the proposals will have on solicitors.

Next steps

The consultation closes on 29 October.

Read the consultation in full on the GOV.UK website

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

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