A single-stage approval process will mark a seismic shift in planning, by Richard Garlick

At this week's Conservative party conference, ministers have been fleshing out their plans to give 'automatic' planning permission to previously developed sites that are suitable for housing. As more details emerge, it is becoming clear just how radical the proposals are.

On brownfield sites, the government wants to end the two-stage process of securing the right to build. Planning and housing minister Brandon Lewis told delegates that requiring housebuilders not only to get sites allocated in local plans, but then to secure permission through a separate process, has been keeping small and medium size builders out of the market.

He proposes to remedy this by requiring local authorities to register all their brownfield sites that are suitable for housing, which will then automatically be given permission in principle. Applicants will still need to resolve detailed matters with the council, he said, but these would be more about the type of housing that can be built, or the infrastructure needed to support it, than whether housing can be built at all.

Switching to a single-stage approval process will constitute a seismic shift in the English planning system. Clearly, whether or not sites are included on the brownfield registers will become immensely important to landowners and planning authorities alike, raising the prospect of decisions to include or exclude particular sites being open to challenge through the courts.

Lewis made clear that part of the government's motivation for the change is to steer more developers onto brownfield land. But, given the Conservatives' zeal for stripping down the machinery of planning, it's seems perfectly possible that ministers will be pondering extending the zonal approach beyond previously used land. Not so long ago, then planning minister Nick Boles was threatening to shoot anyone who proposed further changes to the planning system. Clearly his bosses were not of like mind.

The other key planning headline from Manchester was George Osborne's creation, with immediate effect, of a statutory body to plan to meet the UK's infrastructure needs. The hope that the new National Infrastructure Commission will take the politics out of infrastructure planning is a forlorn one. As we have seen with the work of the Airports Commission, the conclusion of an independent review does not signal the end of political debate on its subject matter. But creating a heavyweight statutory body with a specific brief to take a 30-year view can only help to counterbalance short-term political considerations. There is no reason to think that the commission will change the process of making, examining and deciding applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects. But its plans will now provide an overarching framework for the National Policy Statements that set the framework for major infrastructure planning decisions. The promise of a regularly updated national infrastructure plan is very welcome.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning//richard.garlick@haymarket.com


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