Planning system reform

The proposals

The government has announced a suite of planning reforms with the aim of using the planning system to restart the UK economy in the aftermath of COVID-19.

On 6 August, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) released two consultations on:

Changes to the current planning system

To improve the effectiveness of the planning system, the government consulted on:

  • changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need
  • setting developer contributions for the First Homes scheme
  • temporarily lifting the small sites threshold for small and medium-sized builders
  • extending the permission in principle to major development

Planning for the future

The government is seeking views on a package of proposals for reforming the planning system in England.

The proposed reforms are made up of five stages:

  • simplifying the role of local plans
  • digitising the planning process
  • developing new standards for design and sustainability
  • reforming developer contributions
  • increasing land supply and supporting renewal of town and city centres

The government consulted on proposals including:

  • 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

We support action to boost the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic, but we believe that a ‘kneejerk’ reaction using the planning system will not be sustainable.

Hurried planning reform could damage both the physical environment and the overarching principles of planning.

There must be a properly thought-out review of the whole planning system with a view to legislating for fundamental reform.

Making sure that new laws are good laws will take time and needs thorough consultation to avoid any unintended consequences.

However ‘radical’ any planning reform is, it must be carbon net-zero compatible to make progress. There must be an effective investment framework to deliver national priorities locally.

Changes to the current planning system

In our response, we warned that reforming the whole system at once could lead to uncertainty, especially in light of the impacts of COVID-19 and the end of the transition period.

We believe that government should look at the planning system holistically and decide which parts to reform and when.

We support the introduction of a standard method so long as the new system recognises the complexities of different areas when generating numbers for housing supply.

We would welcome clearer guidance for local planning authorities.

The government should consider whether raising the small sites threshold for a time-limited period would achieve the intended benefits.

A more targeted approach to support SME builders to deliver new homes might be to introduce viability advice and planning application grants for smaller developers.

We doubt that extending permission in principle (PiP) to major developments would make much practical difference.

We suggest that the government consults with lenders on PiP’s value before acting on the proposals.

Read our full response to the changes to the planning system consultation

Planning for the future

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

Planning reforms should be carbon net-zero compatible and be reconcilable with the requirements of the Climate Change Act 2008 (and other efforts to reduce the impact of climate change).

We acknowledge that establishing a universal definition of ‘sustainable development’ is a significant challenge.

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

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.

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.

Read our full response to the planning for the future consultation

Next steps

The consultation on changes to the planning system closed on 1 October.

The government is analysing the feedback.

The consultation on planning for the future closes on 29 October.

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.

What we’re doing

October 2020 – we responded to MHCLG’s consultations on changes to the current planning system and planning for the future

July 2020 – we responded to MHCLG’s consultation on the First Homes scheme

Get involved

MHCLG is calling for evidence on its proposals to improve the transparency of contractual mechanisms, such as land options, used to exercise control over land.

This consultation closes on 6 November 2020.

We encourage those with an interest in this matter to respond directly.