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Planning Reform: What was announced and what does it mean?

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Planning Reform: What was announced and what does it mean?

Last week Robert Jenrick unveiled the details of the long-anticipated reform of the planning system. Our team’s experience in local government means we know that there are few subjects that raise more emotion than local planning. For a Conservative Government, this is especially important in their rural and suburban Tory-voting heartlands around the home counties, where the Liberal Democrats, local Independents and even Labour are now testing Conservative dominance.

To understand the motivation for these reforms we must remember that despite taking the Labour Party to a fourth consecutive defeat, Jeremy Corbyn achieved great success converting young voters to his cause and housing was an important factor in this. At the 2019 election, a large majority of 18 to 29-year-old voters chose Labour, while less than one fourth voted Conservative.

The Conservative Party leadership knows that this age divide is partially driven by a housing tenure divide. The party draws its support from homeowners, not just among older voters, but also among the much younger mortgaged group, where the Conservative-Labour split largely matched the national picture. Unlike their parents and grandparents, young people are less able to buy a home, so unless the government can get more young people onto the housing ladder, they are storing up political problems and risk leaking votes to Labour.

Unfortunately for Robert Jenrick, not all Conservative Party members or voters enthusiastically share his political vision. Already, Conservative councillors in areas potentially affected are telling us they are concerned and are condemning the perceived removal of local scrutiny – something they see at odds with the Government’s devolution agenda.

Key reforms at a glance:  

  • All land divided into three categories – protected, renewal and growth
  • Automatic planning permission for areas designated as growth
  • Local Plans to be approved within 30 months and reviewed every 5 years at least
  • Introduction of development requirements and design codes, to be agreed via community engagement
  • Local Plans to be made digitally accessible, with an increased emphasis on map-based planning
  • A fast-track for beautiful developments
  • Section 106 / CIL contributions are to be replaced by a new ‘infrastructure levy’ which will be nationally standardised

With all land divided into three categories – protected, renewal or growth – the Government’s reforms mean land allocated for growth will see automatic planning permission if key designated standards around size, density and style are met. Areas zoned as ‘growth’ will be the first to complain once revealed – and local Conservative councillors will bear the brunt of that long before the Government does.

Councils will need to oversee substantial public engagement with communities to give transparency to the zoning process, which will become a key flashpoint for engagement for those attempting to influence how land is zoned. To enable the necessary public scrutiny, Local Plans will be made digitally accessible, with an increased emphasis on map-based planning. Local Authorities have had a mixed recent record adapting to using digital platforms during lockdown, so it will be a challenge expanding that capability to enable public scrutiny of plans. The associated costs mean so we also expect councils to request more funding in the Autumn Budget.

As automatic approvals start to be realised, there will be political pressure, particularly from Conservative councillors and MPs, to ensure quality and standards are not reduced because of the loss of local oversight. The Government argues that quality will be assured because strict quality requirements will be built in, and there will also be a fast-track for beautiful developments, whereby local authorities produce design guidelines which define the desired local characteristics of good design. We anticipate existing design panels could be used to judge applications against these standards and these Panels could become increasingly politicised as councillors seek a voice. Councillors in commuter-belt villages worried about over-development will be deprived of the opportunity to vote down proposals at the planning committee, so will instead challenge the design standards to be as high as possible, creating a new barrier to development.  All these caveats could begin to undermine part of the purpose of the reforms, which is to reduce the red tape.

The Government are also reforming the Community Infrastructure Levy to become a nationally set, value-based flat rate charge called the ‘Infrastructure Levy’. The intention is that a less opaque and more rule-based system will benefit medium sized and smaller builders to deliver more homes and compete with the developer giants. Our clients are telling us they welcome initiatives to make the planning system more transparent, as well as efforts to support SME housebuilders and their supply chains.

At a time where funding for local authorities is stretched, some councillors are telling us they worry the Levy will raise less money than previously, though others welcome the news that viability assessments, which allowed developers to argue for reductions in their obligations, will be abolished.  A nationally set flat rate reduces the likelihood a developer will threaten to walk away since they will not be able to negotiate a reduced obligation elsewhere.

When judging these reforms, as always, the devil will be in detail. The intention though, to build more attractive homes where people want to live at more affordable prices, is the right call. That the government should do this at the risk of losing votes in the short term is a courageous move with big risks. The Government must find a way to balance the objectives of sharing the benefits of home-ownership more widely, while doing it gradually enough to maintain the support of their existing political base.

Sir Humphrey Appleby, of Yes Minister fame, once warned Minsters against making ‘brave’ decisions. This is a brave decision that Boris might come to regret. Many younger voters, however, might just thank him for it, which could pay off for the Conservative Party looking for a fifth term in 2024.

The Government consultation on the changes is now open, giving developers the opportunity to influence the emerging new planning system. Instinctif Partners have substantial experience in the planning sector and in drafting consultation responses to maximize the influence of our clients. Please do get in touch if you require assistance.

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