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14 September, 2020 - 12:05 By News Desk

Planning for the future

Last month saw the publication of the Government White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’, writes Colin Brown, Partner, Planning & Development, Carter Jonas Cambridge. Published on 6 August, it set out a package of reforms which represent the most fundamental change in England’s planning system since the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act.

A consultation period now follows, after which primary and secondary legislation will be required for some elements.

The White Paper is meant to address perceived weaknesses in the current planning system and is set against the Government’s pledge to “build, build, build” and “level up” the variations in prosperity between different parts of the country, as well as to increase international competitiveness post-Brexit.

The proposals follow important changes announced in July, including the changes to the Use Class Order, which came into effect on 1 September 2020.

The White Paper sets out proposals across three ‘pillars’ – planning for development; beautiful and sustainable places; and infrastructure and connected places. 

The proposals are extensive and wide-ranging, but perhaps the most fundamental aspect is the shift towards a zoning-style system. This would require local planning authorities (LPAs) to identify land in their Local Plan as falling under one of three categories: Growth, Renewal or Protected.

Growth areas suitable for substantial development – outline approval for development would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Local Plan. 

In these areas, development would automatically receive outline planning permission for the principle of development. New settlements, urban extensions, and former industrial/urban regeneration sites would be included in this category (areas of flood risk are specifically excluded) and growth clusters around universities are mentioned.

Renewal areas suitable for some development, such as ‘gentle densification’ – This could include infill of residential areas, development in towns and small sites on the edge of villages which are not protected. 

There would be a statutory presumption in favour of development for the uses specified as being suitable in each area. There would be automatic consent for schemes which meet design and other prior approval requirements.

Protected areas where development would be restricted – For example green belts and conservations areas, and where an application for express planning permission would still be required for new development.

For exceptionally large sites such as new towns, the Government wants to explore a Development Consent Order under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime.

In growth and renewal areas, the Local Plan would set out suitable development uses and limitations on height and/or density. It would still be possible for a proposal which is different to the plan to come forward, but this would require a specific planning application.

Also suggested is a potential alternative approach combining growth and renewal areas into one category and a broader alternative of limiting automatic permission in principle to land identified for substantial development. 

Under current arrangements, Local Plans already allocate sites for specific uses, in a not dissimilar way to the first two of the three proposed categories. 

However, the automatic granting of planning permission and ‘permission in principle’ under the proposed system may mean that the ability of local authorities to control development will be much more limited than currently.

Overall, this broad-brush approach to growth, renewal and protected areas makes sense. Uncertainty holds back businesses across sectors, and the development industry is no exception. Creating greater certainty around what is acceptable looks to be a positive step.

However, the shift away from a case-by-case to a rules-based approach, risks creating a more centralised system that is less accountable at a local level (something which only a few years ago the Government was keen to move away from). 

Reducing the democratic process will be challenged if this is seen as a ‘gravy train’ for developers and landowners. Of course, this is an over-simplification as it is a relationship that also involves the consumer, where choice and value for money are as important as quality.

There is also a question mark over how flexible the new system will be in allowing alternative uses if the allocated use does not come forward. This could potentially stifle development.

In cities such as Cambridge, large swathes of central urban areas fall within Conservation Areas and will more than likely fall within the protected category, meaning that new development will require an application for express planning permission, as is the case presently. Will a variety of sub-categories therefore be required to fit different area profiles?

There is also concern that the proposal to grant outline planning permission automatically for sites through the plan-making process could be highly complicated.

The suggested approach is not equivalent to zoning elsewhere in the world and does not mean the end for planning applications. Protected areas will still require ‘normal’ planning applications and some form of reserved matters application will be required in growth and renewal areas where outline permission is assumed on allocated sites. If a developer wants to step outside of the allocation an application could still be submitted.

Above all, however, this approach highlights the primacy of the Local Plan and the intention to make it the centre-stage of the process going forward.

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