The Treasury’s Autumn Statement said the government aims to ensure that the "principle of development need only be established once, to give greater certainty and allow locally supported development to proceed more quickly".
In a statement to Planning, housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis provided further detail. He said "often builders spend a lot of time and money on proposals which might get refused down the line".
Lewis added: "Once the broad principle of development is agreed by a council, only then would the applicant be required to spend time on the complex detail, which would still be subject to council approval. Development which is unacceptable would still be refused." He said councils would still be able to shape detail of acceptable projects further down the line.
David Churchill, a director at consultancy Iceni Projects, said the statement hinted at a return to "red line" outline applications, which established the principle of a specified land use with little more than a red line around a site. In the past, Churchill said, only once the principle of development was settled would applicants be required to provide the level of technical data now expected from the start.
"It’s long been the concern of the industry that unnecessary information is required to establish the principle of development," he said. "It does sound to me like it’s a return to ‘red line’ consents."
But Stuart Robinson, chairman of planning at property firm CBRE, queried whether the proposal could fall foul of European regulations. "For a planning permission to mean anything, it would require an environmental impact assessment if it were any size," he said.
Mark Sitch, senior planning partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, said the wording hinted that more stress would fall on local plan allocations. He warned: "There’s potential for lengthening and adding to the complexity of the local plan process."
Meanwhile, legal experts have reacted cautiously to plans to speed up section 106 negotiations and streamline the regime for approving compulsory purchase orders (CPOs).
Section 106 measures could include new guidance and consultation on a faster process for finding agreement, the Autumn Statement said. The government added that it will think about setting timescales to complete agreements and seek improved transparency on using section 106.
Hogan Lovells planning partner Michael Gallimore said pledges to reform the section 106 system are "missing the target". "The real issue is that the promise to scale back section 106 obligations on the back of the Community Infrastructure Levy has not been met, leading to an increasingly confused dividing line between the two systems," he said.
Stephen Webb, a partner at King & Wood Mallesons, said making planning performance agreements statutory could help ensure section 106 agreements on major schemes are finalised on time, with penalties or refunds where targets are missed.
The Autumn Statement commits ministers to consult next spring on measures to make CPO processes "clearer, faster and fairer", with a view to bringing forward more brownfield sites for development.
Gallimore said the review should consider how fairly the CPO compensation system is working, both in terms of amounts paid out and the time taken for settlement.
Berwin Leighton Paisner planning partner Tim Pugh warned that any move towards removing landowners’ right to a full CPO inquiry would fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998, which guarantees rights to the enjoyment of property and to a full hearing before an impartial tribunal.
Tim Taylor, head of planning at law firm Forsters, said reform of the "labyrinthine" CPO regime is "desperately needed". Private companies, he said, are "fearful of entering into an arcane system that could take five to six years, by which time the market may have turned".