Permission in principle seems unlikely to shorten plan-making, by Richard Garlick

On 15 September, planning minister Brandon Lewis announced that he had appointed a group of experts to consider how local plan production could be made more 'efficient and effective'.

Less than a month later, the Housing and Planning Bill proposed a radical change in the function of local plans: subject to certain constraints, they will confer permission in principle to sites that they allocate for housing, or any other use specified by the government in future.

There seems an obvious tension between the two initiatives. If a planning authority is no longer going to have the power to accept or reject individual housing applications, and will have to rely almost entirely on its local plan policies to control the nature of the housing built on that site, then surely it will want to be even more painstaking in the production of its local plan? If councils are, as Hugh Ellis of the campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association puts it, only to have "one bite of the cherry", then they will want to be more certain than ever that the local plan covers all their requirements. Overall, then, the argument goes, the advent of permission-granting local plans must be unlikely to help shorten the plan-making process, and will presumably lengthen it.

However, opinion is divided on this. Some experts on development plan preparation argue that councils already conduct extremely detailed analysis when preparing local plans. To get land allocated through the examination process, often in the face of opposition from locals and promoters of rival sites, a plan needs to be very thorough. They suggest that many councils would be comfortable with using such documents to confer permission in principle without adding much to them.

Others suggest that, even if the introduction of permission in principle did require local plans to contain more detailed policies relating to individual allocated sites, that would not rule out an overall slimming down of the local plan preparation process. The minister's expert group is looking at a whole range of issues concerning local plan production. Permission in principle may mean adding one additional consideration to local plan preparation, but there is potential for the review process to remove many others.

Ultimately, how much planning authorities feel that they need to augment local plans to prepare them for permission in principle will depend on the extent of other powers they retain to control development on allocated sites. The bill seems to suggest that councils will have to opt to assign permission in principle to allocated sites, though how much freedom the government will allow authorities to do otherwise is unclear.

But the need for schemes on allocated sites to secure technical details consent from councils will certainly give planning authorities an additional control mechanism. As yet, however, we don't know what technical details consent will cover. The wider its scope, the less cautious planning authorities are likely to be in preparing local plans in the era of permission in principle.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning//

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