17th June 2022
The Government’s proposed planning reforms seem on the face of it to still champion the localism agenda, but there are swathes of proposals seemingly in conflict with this favouring a more centralised system from years gone by. So who will hold the balance of power?
The Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill aims to reverse geographical inequalities across the UK and covers a raft of measures including heritage assets, planning enforcement, the digitisation of plan making, reform of planning obligations and a new ‘Infrastructure Levy’.
With the clear aim to spread benefits and opportunities more equally across different parts of the UK, how can this be done if local authorities maintain hold over the balance of power? The Bill provides both a mix of proposed remedies to the existing planning system, as well as tweaking the role of local decision making powers, and introducing new public engagement measures.
While there is a long road ahead before royal assent, as the Bill progresses through Parliament, the key provisions to note and track through that process are as follows.
Digitisation and simplification of local plans.
The ‘levelled up’ system proposed by the Bill advances the localism agenda whilst maintaining a degree of power for the Secretary of State at local planning decision levels.
A key proposal requires local authorities to move towards using a new set of National Development Management Policies which would have the same weight as local plans in the planning decision making process. There will be a new power to create ‘supplementary plans’ and design codes will be mandatory and must be digitally accessible. But how exactly it would work is less clear – as is the detail of such a code. If each planning authority is free to implement its own aesthetic vision, how will this work alongside neighbouring authorities and the many links between them?
Despite this re-engineering of neighbourhood planning, conversely, there is the provision for a Street Votes system. This would permit a resident to lay out a proposed development of their property then hold a vote among neighbours on whether it should be permitted.
While this seems like a reasonable proposal to incentivise neighbour cooperation, it might be overlooking the thorny issue of neighbourhood politics. Furthermore, what will happen if any of these street-by-street vote winners clash with the local planning authority’s Local Plan?
At odds with the proposals for neighbourhood planning are some proposals that reduce the influence of local democracy in key aspects of planning decision making. Fighting with the grass roots decision-making vision is a draft provision altering the test in section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which requires permissions to be determined in accordance with development plans, unless material considerations ‘strongly’ indicate otherwise.
The practical effect of this could allow national level policies to override local level policies – ultimately placing the power with the Secretary of State.
Infrastructure Levy and Planning Obligation reform.
Proposals set out in the 2020 Planning White Paper to digitise the planning process are tweaked and reflected in the Bill, as well as a new mandatory infrastructure levy funding the provision of affordable housing.
In a similar way as CIL currently operates, the levy would be set out in charging schedules subject to public examination. Contrary to widespread commentary that the Bill would see an end to Section 106 planning obligations, it suggests that those could be used for the largest sites in place of the levy.
Enforcement and Designated Heritage Assets.
The Bill enhances heritage protection by raising the level of statutory protection for designated heritage assets to that given to listed buildings and conservation areas.
Reforms to enforcement include introducing enforcement warning notices and standardising enforcement timescales for a 10-year time limit to enforce breaches.
As the Bill makes it way through the legislature, government consultation documents and draft statutory instruments will track its journey. Amendments that arise as a result of debate and potential challenge from members of both houses should be anticipated.
If implemented the government hopes that the Bill will help reverse geographical disparities between different parts of the UK. It facilitates public engagement and fixes to current systemic issues. There is however nothing dealing with resourcing issues in local government despite containing a range of provisions intended to implement further devolution.