2015: the year in headlines

The key proposed and actual policy changes and other major news stories from the past 12 months are recalled by Susie Sell.

May: Greg Clark becomes communities secretary
May: Greg Clark becomes communities secretary

January - Eric Pickles breached the Equality Act. Former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles hit the headlines in January after the High Court ruled that he discriminated against travellers by recovering two appeals against refusal of green belt pitches. The judge found in favour of the claimants, Gypsies Charmaine Moore and Sarah Coates. He said that the only reason given for recovery was that the appeals related to travellers' pitches and this showed "indirect discrimination".

Greenwich Council ordered to hand over viability report. The borough was told by a tribunal to disclose the report that had informed its decision to allow the number of affordable dwellings in developer Knight Dragon's 10,000 home Greenwich Peninsula scheme to be cut. The borough has since consulted on requiring a viability case to be made publicly for any development that does not meet its affordable housing target.

February - The Infrastructure Act becomes law. The act received Royal Assent, making a series of changes to the planning system. It included a "deemed discharge" provision on planning conditions, under which a condition is deemed to be discharged when a local authority has not notified the applicant of their decision within a set period. It also empowered the London mayor to make development orders granting consent for development on specified sites in the capital.

March - Planning department cuts highlighted. Local authority planning and development services suffered the deepest cuts of any local government service area since 2010, a report by think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in March. Between 2009/10 and 2014/15, local authority spending in England was cut by 20.4 per cent after accounting for inflation, it added.

Barn conversion rights reinforced. The government updated planning guidance to make clear that the new permitted development rights relating to conversion of agricultural buildings to homes "does not apply a test in relation to sustainability of location". The move followed research showing that councils had previously refused more than half of applications made under the right.

April - Northern Irish councils take on planning powers. A major change to the Northern Irish planning system took place, with the devolution of planning powers, including responsibility for drawing up local plans to councils.

Updated Environmental Impact Assessment rules. New rules were implemented by the government in April to change the screening thresholds for EIA. The threshold for industrial estate development projects was raised from 0.5 to five hectares. Urban development projects of more than five hectares, or including more than 150 homes or more than one hectare of non-residential development also need to be screened under the new rules.

May - New communities secretary drafted in. A cabinet reshuffle following the General Election saw Greg Clark replace Eric Pickles as communities secretary. Clark had most recently held the post of minister for universities, science and cities. Amber Rudd was appointed as secretary of state for energy and climate change, while Brandon Lewis retained ministerial responsibility for planning and housing.

June - Fracking applications blocked.Councillors in Lancashire refused two applications submitted by energy firm Cuadrilla to explore for shale gas at two sites locally. The firm announced in July that it would appeal the decisions. In November, the DCLG said the two appeals had been recovered for determination by the secretary of state.

July - New tests for wind farms introduced. Two new tests for wind farm applications were introduced in a planning guidance update. To be permitted, turbines must be sited in an area "identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan". And the "planning impacts identified by affected communities" must have been fully addressed.

August - Devolution plans push forward. The government's vision of transfering powers from Whitehall to city regions moved closer to reality after chancellor George Osborne invited councils to make their case for devolution over the summer. Deals have now been reached with the Liverpool city region, local leaders in the West Midlands, the North East Combined Authority, the Tees Valley Combined Authority, the Sheffield city region and the Manchester city-region.

Creation of Welsh national plan confirmed. The Planning (Wales) Act 2015, which requires the Welsh government to produce a national development framework, was given royal assent. The framework is due to set out priorities for nationally significant development and land use, and inform local plans.

September - Local plan review panel named. In September, Brandon Lewis launched a panel tasked with considering how the local plan-making process can be simplified. The eight-member group, which is due to report back in the New Year, is chaired by John Rhodes, director of consultancy Quod.

Review of Scottish planning system launched. The Scottish Government appointed an independent panel to review the planning system. It said the panel would "focus on delivering a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process". The Scottish Government extended the consultation in December and says it expects the panel to report in May 2016. However, RTPI Scotland expressed "disappointment" that the panel does not include any chartered town planners.

October - National Infrastructure Commission launched. An independent body that will assess UK infrastructure needs and draw up a plan to meet them over 30 years was announced by the chancellor. The commission, to be chaired by Lord Adonis, will look at how infrastructure investment can support housing, among other things.

Changes to permitted development rights. In October, Brandon Lewis announced that temporary office-to-residential PDRs introduced in 2013 and due to expire in 2016 would be made permanent. Rules were also changed to allow office buildings to be replaced with new-build residential units under the rights, and a new PDR introduced to allow the change of use of light industrial buildings and launderettes to housing.

Housing and Planning Bill published. The Bill includes measures to: place a duty on councils to guarantee the provision of discount Starter Homes for first-time buyers on all "reasonably sized" sites; hand the government powers to help ensure councils have local plans in place by 2017; enable consent for housing to be granted under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime, and grant automatic planning permission in principle on sites allocated in a brownfield register, or in a local or neighbourhood plan.

November - Spending Review promises change. The chancellor's review promised to allow Starter Homes on Green Belt brownfield sites and to place a new duty on planning authorities to deliver the homes provided for in their local plans and at target determination times for minor applications.

Community Infrastructure Levy review launched. Ministers launched an independent review of CIL arrangements, to report by April 2016. A seven-member panel, led by former British Property Federation chief executive Liz Peace, will assess whether CIL is meeting its objectives.

December - Government proposes to redefine affordable housing. As part of a consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, ministers have proposed amending the planning definition of affordable housing to include "a fuller range of products that can support people to access home ownership". The government proposes to require planning authorities to push for higher housing densities around commuter hubs.

Ministers postpone runway decision. The government postponed its response to the recommendation of its advisory group on airport expansion in the South East. Ministers had promised a reply to the Airports Commission, which had concluded that an extra runway at Heathrow Airport was the preferred option, by the end of the year. Last week it announced that it would undertake more work on the question, which it expects will conclude in the summer of 2016.


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