The government is proposing a huge extension of its own planning powers, by Richard Garlick

With the publication of the Housing and Planning Bill and related documents over the past fortnight, the government is proposing a huge extension of its own planning powers - and a severe reduction in those of English councils.

The bill could take away one of the two key mechanisms that local authorities use to control development, by removing the need for planning applications on sites allocated for particular uses in adopted local or neighbourhood plans. It gives central government the power to create nationwide development orders that would grant permission in principle to such sites.

At the moment, the government says it only intends to use the power to give "automatic" permission to housing schemes on sites allocated for that use in local plans, neighbourhood plans and the new brownfield registers. Exactly what type and scale of housing scheme will be granted permission in principle by through this arrangement will will be explained later. But the bill gives ministers the ability to extend the automatic permissions more broadly in future. Ministers will rightly point out that the change would still allow planning authorities to direct the location and the type of development.

But, unless councils begin to draw up vastly more detailed development plans, the extent of their control seems sure to lessen. In any case, with the new 2017 deadline for local plan production looming, and further funding cuts on the way, many councils will struggle to produce more detailed plans.

As advertised in advance, the bill gives the government scope to broaden the grounds on which it can remove a council's decision-making powers, for instance for not meeting new performance targets for speed of determination of "non-major development" applications. It also promises to remove certain housing schemes that are "physically close" or "functionally associated" with major infrastructure schemes from local authority control, and put them into the national infrastructure planning system.

Central government can also take over local authority neighbourhood planning powers if the councils concerned fail to set a referendum date, go against an examiner's recommendation or modify the plan in ways that have not been recommended by the examiner or are otherwise deemed "unnecessary".

Councils that want to maintain a pipeline of shared ownership, intermediate or social housing for rent will now be less able to rely on planning obligations to fund such properties. This is because the bill would allow the communities secretary to require councils to provide a certain amount of Starter Homes, through planning obligations, on housing schemes that meet a definition of his choosing.

The legislation would also allow the secretary of state to instruct decision-makers to pay no regard to local plan policies that conflict with the Starter Homes policy. If conventional affordable housing contributions are still viable once the Starter Homes contribution has been made, they are not ruled out. But some commentators are suggesting that councils who want to see a continued supply of social rented homes will need to build them themselves.

Rightly or wrongly, ministers have clearly taken a view that local authorities have until now been given too much power to resist necessary development, and have decided that they need to curtail it.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning//

This article was amended at 12:40 on 23/10/15 to make clear that the government's current intention is to give "automatic" permission to housing schemes on sites allocated for that use in local plans, neighbourhood plans and the new brownfield registers, subject to certain criteria to be laid out by a  development order. The original article stated that the government's intention was at this stage to limit permission in principle to brownfield housing schemes of fewer than ten units. In fact, it is the alternative route for gaining permission in principle - via consent granted by a planning authority in response to an application - that the government currently intends to limit to housing schemes of fewer than ten units, although there is no stipulation that the route is only open to brownfield schemes. The government has not yet stipulated any limit to the size or location of housing schemes that would be given permission in principle due to being located on a site allocated in a local plan, neighbourhood plan or brownfield register, although a subsequent development order may do so].

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