Changes to the planning system in England, announced today (6 August 2020) by housing minister Robert Jenrick, have been heralded as "landmark" reforms intended to "streamline and modernise the planning process, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed."

A consultation on the new proposals for reform contained in the “Planning for the future” white paper (published 6 August 2020), has been launched by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The open consultation seeks to draw responses from a range of interested parties from across the public and private sectors, as well as from the general public.

The white paper identifies the major shortcomings of the current planning system and seeks to address long-standing calls from industry for the simplification of the overly complex and convoluted process. Built on post-war legislation of the late 1940s the system has evolved in piecemeal fashion and in its current form relies on outdated technology. Further, the discretionary nature of the approval of planning permissions has also, in the absence of a rules-based framework, been criticised for creating greater planning risks and costs. The proposed reforms seek to address these and other issues – such as a lack of focus on design and viability – which undermine public trust in the current system.

Summary of the key proposals 

Local plans – Local authorities will be required to deliver nationally set housing requirements through local plans. Local plans will identify three types of areas for development: growth areas (for substantial development), renewal areas (suitable for some development) and protected areas (restricted development). Automatic outline approval will be provided for certain development specified in local plans within growth areas. Local authorities will also be encouraged to identify sub-areas within identified growth areas to enable self-build and custom-build homes (by broadening accessibility to the housebuilding system some concerns about quality have been raised, however, Robert Jenrick has stated that the cutting of red tape does not equate to cutting of standards). To democratise the planning process, Local Authorities will be encouraged to "radically and profoundly reinvent the way with which they engage with communities" and to increase accessibility to local plans by making them more visual and shorter.

Digitalisation – The system will move away from paper based documents to a digital platform. This will include automating routine processes and improving online case management tools to reduce cost and errors. Public understanding and interaction with the planning process will be improved through modernised user experience (i.e. interactive maps) and by facilitating access (i.e. enabling online compatibility with social networks and mobile phones).

Building beautiful – The revised process will actively encourage "sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development" through new measures such as the grant of automatic permissions for high-quality developments which capture local character and further codifying requirements for carbon-neutral homes by 2050. Frameworks to efficiently assess environmental needs will also be introduced alongside new design codes which will be prepared with input from local communities and supported by a new body which will ensure there is capacity and capability within local authorities to implement and raise design standards.

Infrastructure – House builders will note that the new proposals seek to level the playing field by encouraging smaller builders into to the sector in a decisive move away from the "current handful of massive corporations" and towards competition and diversity. A greater emphasis is also placed on transparency and fairness in the context of developer obligations where all participants of all sizes will contribute a fair share of infrastructure costs and affordable housing quotas. To increase the revenue raised and support affordable housing provision, Community Infrastructure Levy, affordable housing and Section 106 payments will be consolidated into a single infrastructure levy calculated with reference to the uplift in land value resulting from development. The Prime Minister has commented that the reforms will make "it harder for developers to dodge their obligations to improve infrastructure".

Establishing communities – The proposals will seek to ensure availability of land for development and to support renewal of town centers through location of new public buildings and public investment in development. The revised National Planning Policy Framework will make clear that masterplans and design codes for large developments must seek to include multiple development types from different developers to facilitate the build-out of multiple phases simultaneously.

The proposals have already drawn industry comment with the British Property Federation supporting the Government’s intention to simplify the process and to make "much needed investment into communities across the UK, which will underpin [the] nation’s post-Covid recovery". However, it also notes that local planning departments will need to be better resourced "to ensure pace of delivery is equally complemented by quality". Similarly, The Royal Town Planning Institute has warned that "planning reforms could slow house-building in England if not adequately resourced". The National Housing Federation has also welcomed proposals to build quality homes more quickly but cautions that "any changes must ensure more affordable homes can be built to meet demand across the country".

The consultation on the proposals runs for a period of six weeks from today and closes on 29 October 2020 – we will be tracking the outcome of the consultation and impact it will have from both a legal and practical perspective.