Policy Briefing: Permission in principle

A new way of obtaining planning permission may make the planning system more complex, says David Bainbridge.

New homes: developers could be able to apply for PiP for large housing schemes
New homes: developers could be able to apply for PiP for large housing schemes

Q What is the government proposing?

The Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16 sets out the legislative framework for a new way of obtaining planning permission – "permission in principle" (PiP). The Technical consultation on implementation of planning changes, published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in February, includes proposed details on how it will work.

PiP would to apply to sites "allocated in locally produced and supported documents", such as local plans, brownfield registers or neighbourhood plans. PiP can also be granted to applications for smaller sites approved by local authorities.

Issues detailed in the "in principle" application process seem likely to include land use, location and amount of development, in a similar way to outline planning applications where all matters are reserved. The second "technical details" application required for full consent looks likely to cover all other issues, such as site layout and building design, and to play a similar role to reserved matters applications.

Existing site allocations in adopted development plan documents cannot grant permission in principle, so authorities will need to prepare new planning documents if new sites are to benefit from the proposal.

Q Why is the government making this change?

The government believes PiP will increase the number of suitable sites available for development, particularly for housing, and improve the efficiency of the planning system.

The consultation document says the current system "can often require too much information to be produced upfront before there is reliable certainty that a development can go ahead in principle", and that the proposal’s aim is "to give greater certainty and predictability within the planning system by ensuring that the principle of development only needs to be established once".

The government also believes PiP would reduce the number of applications for sites considered unsuitable for development, although there is little evidence for this. The consultation document does not acknowledge that site suitability can be improved through best practice in the system, including consultation, conditions and obligations.

Q How effective will the proposal be in saving developers time and money?

A PiP can reduce uncertainty and aid investment decisions. However, the DCLG consultation makes it clear that PiP will be locally-driven, so there is potential for complexity and disagreement between communities and local authorities. While the planning system deals with this on a daily basis, it is not a recipe for efficiency.

PiP will be a multi-layered system with potential for uncertainty, risk and cost at every stage. There will still be a system of formal plan-making, followed by applications, consultations and ultimately determination of applications for PiP. Once PiP is granted, technical details consent will still be needed. In effect, this is an application for planning permission that will also involve some level of consultation and determination. Applicants will have a right to appeal outcomes.

Q What challenges will it present for local planning authorities?

Local authorities will need to find resources to implement PiP. As PiP cannot apply to development plans already in place, relevant bodies will have to prepare new local and neighbourhood plans as well as brownfield registers.

It will require political will to make this a priority in an era of squeezed resources and competing demands, and there is a risk that PiP will be a low priority when it comes to resource allocation.

Once it is in place there will be a transitional period for "bedding in" – itself presenting uncertainty, risk and potentially prohibitive cost for councils.

Officers will need to interpret the legislation and guidance to put the initiative in place. On the face of it, this should be similar to the current method of development plan preparation and the determination of outline planning and reserved matters applications, which will still be important parts of the planning system.

It remains to be seen how many chief planning officers and portfolio holders will perceive a benefit, and how communities will react to the increased complexity of the system.

David Bainbridge is a partner at planning consultancy Bidwells and leads the planning team in its Milton Keynes office

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