Conservatives 2015: what we learned about changes to infrastructure planning and 'automatic consent for brownfield sites'

Measures to ease planning rules on brownfield sites and the creation of a body to assess the nation's infrastructure needs were key elements of a plan to encourage development announced at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week.

Infrastructure: chancellor launches commission to assess need for facilities to support housing development
Infrastructure: chancellor launches commission to assess need for facilities to support housing development

After Labour's defeat in the May general election, it appeared that the heavyweight work that the party had commissioned on planning and infrastructure would be consigned to the dustbin. But in a surprise move, chancellor George Osborne this week revealed that the recommendations of one of Labour's reviews - the Armitt review of infrastructure planning - would form the basis of a new plan to stimulate construction. Osborne told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester: "There's an idea, put forward by many people, including some Labour politicians, and its time has come."

Osborne said in his conference speech that peer Lord Adonis would resign the Labour whip to chair a new statutory National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). According to Osborne, the NIC's remit will be to assess "calmly and dispassionately what the country needs to build for its future" and to hold "any government's feet to the fire if it fails to deliver". In a statement, the Treasury said the commission will begin work immediately, with an initial focus on plans to transform the connectivity of northern cities, priorities for future large-scale investment in London's public transport infrastructure and ways to ensure that investment in energy infrastructure can meet future demand.

The NIC will provide an assessment of the UK's infrastructure needs every five years, looking 30 years ahead, the Treasury said. It added that the commission's recommendations will, "subject to legislation, feed directly" into national policy statements (NPSs), which guide planning decisions on nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), with the aim of "streamlining the planning process".

Robbie Owen, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said the process set out by the chancellor appeared "pretty similar" to the recommendations contained in Sir John Armitt's 2013 review. Owen said the chancellor's proposals would mean that "we will still have NPSs, but how these are formulated, and the overarching policies they have to reflect, will definitely change". He said in future, NPSs will have to reflect and be consistent with the five-year plan produced by the commission. "At the moment, there is no overarching policy document saying what NPSs should contain," he said. Owen added that the chancellor's announcement could mean a "far stricter, more systematic review of NPSs every five years. At the moment, they get reviewed when they get reviewed".

Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, said the chancellor's announcement would be unlikely to affect the process of making, examining and deciding applications under the NSIP regime. But he said the fact that the assessment of infrastructure need in the existing NPSs may change as a result of the NIC's work could lead to short-term uncertainty for applicants.

In his speech, the chancellor also said the government is "sweeping away planning rules on brownfield sites". The Treasury statement said that the government will legislate to provide automatic planning permission in principle on all brownfield sites on a new brownfield register. On the conference fringe, planning minister Brandon Lewis and Northern Powerhouse minister James Wharton provided additional explanation on the proposal, which was first announced in July's Fixing the Foundations productivity plan.

Wharton told a fringe session, organised by the website ConservativeHome, that the government would require councils to identify brownfield sites suitable for housing. "Those will then be granted permission in principle to drive housebuilders towards them as the opportunity will be that much easier to build and deliver our needs," he said.

Lewis told an earlier ConservativeHome fringe session that the measure would be in the Housing Bill, due to be published "very shortly". He said, under the mechanism, "developers will be able to see when they are looking at brownfield sites that there is development in principle there - the discussion then with the authority is around detailed matters". He added: "It shouldn't be around 'Can I build here?', or 'Can I build ten or 15 houses?', but 'What infrastructure do we actually need if we need any?', or 'Should the homes be Tudor, Georgian, Victorian or whatever local design?'"

Lewis said the measure would make it easier for small and medium-sized builders to access finance, suggesting that the process would be different from the local plan site allocation process. "A developer can look at a local plan, decide that they want to go for a planning application, and still have no confidence whatsoever of actually getting planning permission to build anything at all," the minister said. "It's a huge barrier to entry." Lewis told the fringe session that, under the brownfield "permission in principle" measure, developers would no longer be "going to the bank to say, 'I've got a really good scheme to develop and I might possibly get planning permission, will you take a gamble on planning?'"

At a fringe session organised by think-tank the Centre for Social Justice, Lewis said "there is too much time taken up with process and bureaucracy around planning and that certainly will be in my sights over the next few months". He said he would bring forward measures to speed up section 106 agreements. "I want to make sure that we create something that can't get gamed by either side, but also gets into a better timeframe, so this farce of having permission in principle but taking several years to negotiate a section 106 is over," Lewis said. "That cannot continue. It's not good for developers and it's not good for communities."

5 Other things we learned from the party conferences

1 Lewis determined to reinstate small sites exemption. Planning minister Brandon Lewis signalled his determination to reinstate rules exempting developers of small sites from affordable housing obligations at a Conservative conference fringe session. He said some councils' requirements are making small sites "completely unviable". The government has won leave to appeal a July High Court ruling forcing it to delete guidance excluding developments of ten or fewer homes from affordable housing contributions.

2 Central London borough calls for section 106 rule change. Westminster City Council is seeking changes to planning rules to enable it to use developer contributions to fund affordable homes for its residents on sites outside its area. Daniel Astaire, the council's cabinet member for housing, regeneration, business and economic development, told a Conservative conference fringe session: "We want to address the legal barriers on use of affordable housing funds from section 106 contributions out of borough."

3 Some are still pressing for a community right of appeal. A member of a panel appointed to advise the government on speeding up the local plan process has said communities should be given the right to appeal planning decisions that conflict with neighbourhood plans. John Howell, Tory MP for Henley, told a Conservative conference fringe session that he did not think that this would be "unduly messy".

4 Corbyn attacks 'land banking'. At the Labour Party conference last month, new leader Jeremy Corbyn told delegates: "We need new ideas to tackle land hoarding and land speculation." He added that housing would be a "top priority" for Labour under his leadership and tackling the housing crisis would have to start with a new council housebuilding programme.

5 Labour proposes tougher affordable housing obligations. A report by the party's new shadow housing and planning minister John Healey floats measures to tighten obligations on developers to fund more new social housing. This proposal would form part of a programme to deliver up to 100,000 affordable public homes a year. According to the report, published last month by think-tank the Smith Institute, such a programme could pay for itself in 26 years through lower housing benefit payments.


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