In Brief

UK government plans overhaul of planning system


7 August 2020

The UK government has proposed an overhaul of England's planning system in a move that will switch from a “discretionary” planning model to a ”rules-based” system.

Since its introduction in 1947, the English planning system has assessed planning applications against local plans on a case-by-case basis – planning permission is granted by an elected planning committee of local councillors. The new system will abolish this discretionary model, and instead introduce rules according to which planning permission would be awarded automatically if proposals hit set criteria.

Set out in a white paper titled 'Planning for the Future', the new system is designed to increase the speed and “beauty” of new developments in England. Writing in his foreword to the paper, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the existing system was “beginning to crumble” and that the “time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again.”

Johnson said the new method would be “simpler, clearer and quicker to navigate, delivering results in weeks and months rather than years and decades”. It would, he claimed, encourage “sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development rather than obstructing it.”

The proposals will see local authorities divide land in England into three categories – for growth, for renewal and for protection. New developments would be allowed automatically in “growth” areas when in accordance with in a local plan; in “renewal” zones, proposals would be granted “permission in principle” subject to basic checks; “protected” land would cover green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

'Planning for the Future' also pledges to embed pre-approved “design codes” into local plans. These, the white paper claims, will “reflect the diverse character of our country, as well as what is provably popular locally”.

These design codes can be created by local authorities, or by developers bringing forward new developments provided that they are “prepared with effective inputs from the local community, considering empirical evidence of what is popular and characteristic in the local area”.

The Ministry of Housing has said that it will create a new body to aid the creation of design codes, as well as wanting each local planning authority to have a “chief officer for design and place-making”.

The government claims that detailed local housing plans, which can currently take councils seven years to put together, will be abolished and replaced with simplified housing plans paired with design codes, which are to be prepared within 30 months. If a scheme meets the code, it would automatically get planning permission.

The paper proposes abolishing Section 106, the law which enables councils to impose affordable housing on developers. It would also remove the community infrastructure levy, a charge that can be levied by local authorities on development, replacing it with a nationally set, flat-rate charge.

'Planning for the Future' is now out for consultation for 12 weeks. After this, the government will draft primary and secondary legislation and develop more detailed proposals.

The plans have already come in for heavy criticism, with many arguing that they will do little to support the building of well-designed, affordable, sustainable homes.

The RIBA described the plans as “shameful”, while Shelter, the homelessness and housing charity, was alarmed by the removal of Section 106 agreements.

“Section 106 agreements between developers and councils are tragically one of the only ways we get social homes built these days, due to a lack of direct government investment,” said Shelter's chief executive, Polly Neate. “So, it makes no sense to remove this route to genuinely affordable homes without a guaranteed alternative.”

Hugh Ellis, the director of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, criticised the proposals' diminishment of democratic involvement in the planning procedure.

“It’s about local democracy,“ he said. “When local people are walking down the street and come across a new development they didn’t know about, the answer will now be: ‘You should have been involved in the consultation eight years ago when the code was agreed.’

“It’s diluting the democratic process. At the moment, people get two chances to be involved: once when the plan is made, and once when a planning application is submitted. Now they’ll only have a chance when the code is being prepared.”