Planning experts brand this “Large scale centralisation of the planning system, and the biggest shift away from localism in a generation”

Claire Petricca-Riding and Nicola Gooch of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors welcome the opportunity to discuss and re-invigorate the planning system in England.

We have recently seen the introduction of the ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper which sets out the ‘building better, building beautiful’ ambitions of the Government along with proposals to streamline the planning system to bring it into the 21st Century. This will be  by making better use of technology to drive innovation on the way plans are produced, consulted on and engagement with the local community in that area.

Whilst they may seem radical at first glance, the proposals in the white paper are actually an evolution of the current system – as opposed to an attempt to redraw it completely. Many of the proposals in it have been consulted on before – such as permission in principle.

They do, however, represent the large scale centralisation of the planning system, and the biggest shift away from localism in a generation. Under the new system, local plans would not set planning policy – that would be undertaken by central government. Instead land would be divided into three categories:

  • Growth areas – where the plan itself grants outline planning permission for the allocated sites
  • Renewal areas – which would benefit from a strong presumption in favour of development; and
  • Protected areas – which would operate in a similar way to the current system.

It is proposed to retain neighbourhood plans. The impact of such plans would necessarily be heavily reduced in scope – as the overall designation of the land would have already been decided (and in some cases already granted consent). The fact that the local plan would itself grant consent for some forms of development is likely to make them even more contentious, as once the principle of development has been set it will be much harder to challenge. To counter this, the government proposes getting rid of ‘soundness’ and ‘the duty to co-operate’ and replacing it with a single standard of ‘sustainable development’.

The government is also studying the role of judicial review itself at present- in fact an independent review of judicial review itself was launched last week.  Whilst this review was aimed at central government, the unintended consequence may be that judicial review of all decisions of both central and local are curtailed as a result,  which will have a detrimental impact on the rights of the individual.

The concept of permission in principle is not new – the mechanisms are already in the system, but take up has been low. Enforcing it on a larger scale is, however, radical.

Potentially more contentious are the proposals for developer contributions. The proposal is to move to a straight development land tax to fund infrastructure and affordable housing. The tax would be paid at point of occupation and linked to development value – which would remove the ability to negotiate from the system completely. The intention is to allow developers to pay part of the tax ‘in-kind’ with onsite provision of affordable housing – but does not say what would happen to the other types of on-site infrastructure or plans currently secured through s.106 obligations.

It also places the burden of delivery of all new infrastructure squarely on the shoulders of local authorities – who under this iteration of the new system would no longer be able to require developers to deliver road improvements or schools themselves, as part of a s.106 package on a site.

There are ambitious plans regarding sustainability, environmental protection, net zero and energy efficiency.  This will sit alongside the Government’s flagship Environment Bill which will have its third reading in the Commons in October.  This places the environment at the heart of the planning decision making process- it has long been considered a necessary irritation to achieving development.  These targets however must be met if we are to achieve the targets set and combat climate change in the near future.

It is also encouraging that placemaking will also be central to decision making. At Irwin Mitchell we have long been supporters of placemaking and a ‘sense of place’ in developments.  Our offices are spread across the country, each retaining its uniqueness and link to that area.  It is of course where we work, rest and play and therefore we have a requirement of stewardship to the communities we serve.

We would urge the geographical identity be maintained through local engagement in the design process, not a one size fits all decree from a centralised system.

To date every attempt to simplify the planning system has only served to make it more complicated. It will be interesting to see if this is the package of reforms that finally breaks that trend. We are however doubtful of how simple a system can be when it will only apply to England. Planning and the environment are devolved matters.  As such, cross-border developments are now likely to become more complex as Wales and Scotland look for forge their own way in these areas.”