Nine things we learned at the National Planning Summit

The National Planning Summit took place in London last week. Here are nine key messages Planning took away from the event.

Chief planner Steve Quartermain
Chief planner Steve Quartermain

1. The government expects to issue its revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) by the end of July. Answering questions, MHCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain said he expects to report back to ministers on responses to this spring’s consultation "in the next four to six weeks", with a view to issuing the revised document "by the end of July".

2. The chief planner will make his recommendations on local plan intervention to the secretary of state next month. Speaking at the same session, Quartermain said that he and other officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) team were currently scrutinising local plan preparation at three authorities – Thanet, Castle Point and Wirral. He said: "A diagnostic report on the findings will be written up, then I will go to the minister with my report some time in June."

3. The government may "consider" reinstating the garden city principles to the revised NPPF.
Quartermain said the government has not changed its policy on garden cities but the NPPF’s new wording aimed to "improve design quality everywhere". He said: "Our intention has always been to be succinct and to only say things once. If that’s not working, we’ll consider putting it back."

4. The government is keen to continue to "strengthen the need" for cross-boundary strategic planning between councils, but will stop short of making it compulsory. Simon Ridley, MHCLG director general for decentralisation and local growth, said: "The strategy we are pursuing is very much working with local planning authorities as they are. I don’t see at the moment the government re-drawing the map. What we will continue to do is strengthen the need for collaboration across boundaries."

5. Milton Keynes Council is set to start trialling the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to process planning applications by the end of the summer. Brett Leahy, head of planning at Milton Keynes Council, said the council had received funding to develop the use of AI in planning. He said: "We have a programme where the AI will do the validation aspect of the application process to free up capacity and resource. We are hoping to have that live by the end of this summer. By the end of this year, we hope to use the AI to assess householder and [permitted development] applications."

6. The London-city region needs clarification from government on how it should handle new requirements for cross-boundary cooperation. London’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, Jules Pipe, said the Greater London Authority (GLA) is collaborating with 130 local authorities in the wider South East on issues including housing and infrastructure delivery. Under the draft revised NPPF, authorities have to sign statements of common ground with neighbours on such cross-boundary issues. Pipe said: "Without government support we can only take this forward by working with ‘willing partner’ authorities. Building such collaboration takes time and the relationships will be very complex."

7. Developers are finding it harder to bargain down affordable housing provision on the basis of the price paid for a site. The GLA strategic planning manager (viability) John Wacher said that there was "a tide of change" in this area, thanks to recent court and appeal decisions and the government’s draft viability guidance. He identified the draft guidance as a key development. This says that, when preparing viability assessments, planners should calculate a benchmark land value on the basis of the land’s existing use value plus a premium for the landowner, rather than by estimating its potential market value.

8. A major reason why planning permissions fail to be built out is due to councils’ over-reliance on large housing sites, according to a member of the government’s Letwin build-out review panel. Christine Whitehead, emeritus professor in housing economics at the London School of Economics, said "a very large proportion of the problem, at least in London and the South East, is on very large sites", particularly those over 1,500 units.

9. Councils should always consider recruiting non-planning graduates to increase their staffing levels, a London planning chief recommended. Marilyn Smith, chief planning officer at the London Borough of Hounslow, said her council had employed graduates from non-planning courses while paying for them to do part-time masters courses, as long as they agreed to stay at the council for two years. "Don’t ever restrict yourself to planning graduates, because there just are not enough of them in the country," Smith said.

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