Government announces planning reform

By Michael HardwareDirector of Planning and Property 

The starting pistol on planning reform has been fired: the Government has today published a White Paper “Planning for the Future” for consultation. This coupled with the reform of local government potentially heralds a period of massive change for local government and developers in the coming years.

The White Paper proposes to simplify the planning system, making it quicker, more democratic and leading to more homes being built; the target is 300,000 per annum, a million new homes during the life of the present government.

Planning consultants will be pouring over the detail of the White Paper, reporting on the planning implications of zoning, standardised general policies, the new levy and the focus on design and sustainability. But what does this mean on the ground for residents and politicians, and for consultation and democracy?

Local implications

The proposed changes shift the focus of consultation away from the planning application for a single site to the implications and allocations in the local plan. The plan making process becomes the key as the principle of development and what can be built will all be decided through the local plan. No outline application, just a detailed/reserved matters application to determine what exactly is going to be built. This is only really a small change to what happens now, removing one, somewhat pointless, stage in the planning process.

To ensure the democratic process is maintained, local councils will be required to engage with communities more during the local plan process, and in a better way. It will not only simplify the local plan process, it will digitise it, making it easier for residents to view and comment on proposals.

Importance of local plans

Although simplified and shorter, limited to 30 months, the whole local plan process will become more important and more political. Whereas in the past local plans have received little attention from the community, but now residents will have to understand that this is the time they need to make their views known, this is the process that will decide the future of their communities, and this will be the only real opportunity to oppose or influence development.

It does not mean that there will be no consultation when the detailed/reserved matters application is made, there will, and residents will continue to express opposition at this time as well. Although they will only be able to object on a limited number of points, and not the principle of development itself. It is clear a major public communication exercise will need to be undertaken by councils if these changes are adopted, and one which will be ongoing.

Local government reforms

These proposed changes fit well with the broader local government reforms envisaged. The proposed abolition of the duty to cooperate will be welcomed by many. This afterthought following the Localism Act in 2012 has never been fully understood, or worked.

The creation of larger unitary authorities and above this structure elected mayors with strategic oversight will ensure cross-border collaboration. Some would suggest that this is the return to a form of regional planning. They may be right as the planning reforms also include binding housing delivery targets.

Early days

These are early days and this is obviously not the final form of what will be changed. There will be considerable debate over the coming months, with the Government listening to what the industry and councils have to say. Watch this space.