The “Planning for the Future” White Paper published earlier this month represents potentially the most significant change in the planning system for decades. Whilst previous changes have sought to shift the emphasis to a more enabling and less bureaucratic approach whilst maintaining the fundamental principles of Local Plans, the White Paper acknowledges that this has repeatedly failed. Half of local planning authorities are still without an up to date Local Plan, despite previous planning reforms which have directly sought to address this.

Radical changes are proposed which will significantly increase the importance of spatial plans. These plans will essentially give permission in principle for development, defining “Growth”,” Renewal” and “Protected” areas.

In Growth areas, outline approval would be automatically granted for certain forms of development specified in the plan. In Renewal areas, there would also be a statutory presumption in favour of development which would cover existing built areas where smaller-scale development would be deemed appropriate. This would include development in residential areas, development in town or village centres and development on sites around villages. In Protected areas, including Green Belt, Conservation Areas and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), there would be “more stringent” development controls and full planning applications would be required for new schemes.

Significant digitalisation of the planning system is proposed which will see the current bureaucratic paper-based system move to a more streamlined, quicker, digital system. It is hoped this system will be accessible and engaging to a more diverse population base. Local Plans will become visual and map-based standardised documents and will follow a new standard template. There is a particular focus on engaging the younger generation into the planning system to ensure that development that is permitted benefits those who will have to live with it into the future.

The White Paper ambitiously promises a more certain planning system, which levels the playing field rather than stacking the odds in favour of large developers who have a greater ability to absorb risk. It promises a deep dive regulatory review to identify and eliminate outdated regulations which increase costs for local planning authorities, especially to the decision-making process.

It advocates a slimming down of documentation required to justify the principle of development, amending the evidence led approach of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Each case is judged on its own merits having regard to the balance of sustainability, to a system which pre-agrees the principle of development in certain cases and focuses the developer on the finer details, such as design, landscape impact and biodiversity. This is intending to prevent applications from getting bogged down in policy arguments and shift the focus of planners and developers towards design and the delivery of better-quality development which benefits communities.

Instead of general policies for development, the NPPF would become the primary source of policies for development management, with Local Plans providing site and area-specific criteria for development, alongside locally produced design codes which would hold more weight in planning decisions. Each local planning authority will also be required to have a chief officer for design and place-making to ensure that planning authorities are properly qualified to appraise design.

The White Paper also puts forward the idea of “fast-track for beauty”, which is a proposal to grant automatic permission for high-quality developments that reflect local character and preference.

The Government is proposing to maintain the housing delivery test and the presumption in favour of sustainable development, but it is considering some options that would see the five-year housing land supply requirement scrapped. Whatever the mechanism, the document states that the proposed approach will ensure that enough land is planned for with sufficient certainty about its availability for development. A greater emphasis will also be placed on local authorities to supply sufficient land for self-build development, rather than relying solely on developer-led delivery.

Significant changes are also proposed to the current system of developer contributions and viability appraisals. The White Paper seeks to reform the current system of developer contributions which is set locally in favour of a centrally applied infrastructure levy which will fund infrastructure and additional affordable homes delivered by local authorities.

The current planning system is plagued with delays and the White Paper recognises this. It sets out a commitment to get planning applications determined faster. It wishes to ensure the 8 or 13-week time limits for determining applications are firm deadlines, not aspirations which can be got around through extensions of time. It wants applications to be shorter and more standardised with just a key planning statement of no more than 50 pages to justify the development proposals.

Harsher penalties for councils that fail to determine an application within the statutory time limits will be introduced. This would involve the automatic refund of the planning fees or the deemed granting of planning permission in some cases. By providing greater certainty on where development will be accepted the Government expects to see fewer appeals being considered by the planning inspectorate. Where applications are refused and the decision is overturned at appeal, the paper proposes that applicants will be entitled to an automatic rebate of their planning application fee.
The White Paper also states that the costs of operating the planning system should be principally funded by developer contributions rather than the national or local taxpayer which will mean that development contributions and planning application fees are most likely set to rise.

Overall, there is a clear focus on the delivery of good quality development. The Prime Ministers press release published just before the White Paper was titled “Build, Build, Build”. Despite there being lots of new ideas for how to improve the planning system being discussed there is a distinct lack of detail around the treatment of the UK rural areas which contribute significantly to the economy. We must ensure that the countryside is not sterilised by these planning reforms and that rural diversification and development which enhances the vitality and diversity of rural areas is foremost in any new planning system.

Consultation on the White Paper proposals run for 12 weeks until 29th October 2020. The Government wishes to see responses from developers, consultants, and communities. Rural Solutions will be making representations to ensure that the interests of our rural development clients are promoted, and we encourage you to express your views directly. We would also welcome your views and insights so that we can ensure we capture these within our response.