Policy Briefing: What planners need to know about the 'agent of change' principle

A principle aiming to protect night-time venues is set to receive greater emphasis in planning, says Michael Dempsey.

Live music: agent of change principle intended to protect night-time venues
Live music: agent of change principle intended to protect night-time venues

Q What is the "agent of change" principle?

A It refers to the principle where the party introducing a new land use is responsible for managing the impact of that change. This includes situations where the new use is more sensitive than nearby existing uses and could be adversely affected by them, for example, new residential development over a nightclub. Under the principle, the residential developer would be responsible for any soundproofing or other mitigation required to avoid an adverse impact from the venue.

It is seen as a means of ensuring that existing venues do not shoulder the burden of the new use, either via complaints from the new neighbours or by having to mitigate the impact themselves. The wider context is the reported decline in night-time venues over the past decade and the increasing list of venues under threat.

Q What is the principle’s status in English planning policy?

A While it is not explicitly referred to, elements can be found. In the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), paragraph 123 advises that planning policies and decisions should recognise that existing businesses should not have unreasonable restrictions placed on them because of changes to nearby land uses. The associated Planning Practice Guidance on noise indicates that consideration should be given to the potential effects of locating new residential development close to existing businesses that cause noise.

At a local level, many councils have adopted policies that require new residential developments to be suitably designed to minimise internal noise exposure. Authorities where the night-time economy is prevalent usually recognise the principle in policy.

Q Are there any proposed changes to the principle in London or other parts of the UK?

A Last year, the mayor of London said he will incorporate the principle in the next London Plan. His recently-published supplementary planning guidance on the night-time economy refers to the principle, advising that development proposals should seek to manage noise without unduly adding to the burdens of existing businesses. Meanwhile, the Welsh government announced in May that it will include "explicit reference" to the principle in its national planning policy document, Planning Policy Wales, to support the night-time economy.

As part of its consultation on the Housing White Paper earlier this year, the government proposed amending the NPPF to recognise the principle more fully.

Q What implications could efforts to strengthen or introduce the principle have on local authorities?

A There is natural tension between the agent of change principle and other policy objectives, such as housing supply. Too much emphasis on the principle could hinder new development and adversely affect the local economy and therefore the long-term viability of the venues it is supposed to be protecting. The principle may also necessitate decision-makers grappling with complex technical issues, such as noise impacts, in greater detail.

Q What impact could it have on developers?

A Developers may expect greater scrutiny of the detail of noise-sensitive schemes, including internal layout, and the increased use of conditions or section 106 obligations to mitigate such impacts on an ongoing basis. The need to incorporate suitable design and mitigation measures may also have consequences for scheme viability and so the extent to which other policy objectives, such as affordable housing targets, can be met.

Q How effective could the principle be in preserving night-time venues?

A Any new policy would fall into the "pot" of policies and material considerations to be considered by decision-makers when determining a planning application. However, since existing policy contains elements of the principle and neighbouring uses constitute material considerations that should be taken into account anyway, the principle’s introduction ?is more a change of emphasis than something completely new. It will also make no difference to the challenges that venues face outside the planning regime.

Michael Dempsey is a senior associate at Berwin Leighton Paisner

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