The government's Fixing the Foundations productivity plan has raised the prospect of sweeping changes to the planning process for brownfield sites identified as suitable for housing. But after floating the concept of a "zonal" approach to agree outline consent for previously developed land, officials were still unable to define the phrase as Planning went to press.
The Conservative Party's 2015 election manifesto included a pledge to require councils to keep registers of available sites and "ensure that 90 per cent of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission for housing by 2020". May's Queen's Speech included the measure as part of the proposed Housing Bill and identified local development orders (LDOs) as the planning measure to be sought.
LDOs have to date mainly been used for industrial sites, but coalition ministers were keen to test them to deliver large-scale housing schemes more quickly as part of the Housing Zones programme. The idea of requiring councils to introduce LDOs on 90 per cent of brownfield sites suitable for homes surfaced in January's Building More Homes on Brownfield Land consultation, which suggested that those falling short of the target could lose powers to determine brownfield applications.
Launching the productivity plan last week, business secretary Sajid Javid said the government is going to "introduce a new zonal system, which will effectively give automatic planning permission on suitable brownfield sites". Details in the document confirm that the granting of "automatic permission in principle" would be "subject to the approval of a limited number of technical details".
Richard Pestell, senior associate at consultancy Peter Brett Associates, said the zonal system could be a "broad brush" approach allowing for sites to be simply designated without the kind of specific considerations that LDOs entail. "You come across zonal systems in the USA and France, dealing with accepted density and housing policy," he said. "If a zoning system states that anything in, say, Birmingham city centre can be developed to this density and this height, you might find that details after the principle of the development is agreed are the real stumbling block." Pestell said simplified planning would do little to overcome the basic viability barriers that brownfield sites often face.
Mike Best, executive director at consultancy Turley, said it is likely that "zoning" is being seen as an alternative to the LDO approach because of councils' concerns about resource implications. He said the proviso that automatic permission would need "a limited number of technical details" is significant. "If placing on the statutory register is effectively a grant of permission 'in principle', there will need to be some process where checks and balances such as environmental impact assessment (EIA) screening occur, as well as consideration of technical details such as contamination, flood risk, access and ecology, which might constrain the site or render it unviable," he said.
"There may be a way in which government could change permitted development rights to grant blanket permission to sites on a statutory register, once the suitability test and EIA screening establish whether there is a likelihood of significant environmental effects. As there would be no consideration of design, placemaking or other detailed impacts at this stage, I suspect there will still be a further step of detailed approval of schemes."
Mike Derbyshire, head of planning at property consultant Bidwells, said the proposed new system could still utilise LDOs, but that EIAs would probably still be necessary for larger sites with potentially significant environmental effects.