It is not a propitious time for making predictions. The coming months offer countless alternative outcomes from the Brexit debate, from a No-Deal scenario on 31 October to a possible change of government. Whichever path events take, the outcome is likely to impact widely on all areas of public policy, including planning. Some proposed planning policy and legislation changes will no doubt fall by the wayside. But it will still be useful to know the changes that are currently scheduled. Below, we do our best to peer into a murky future.
Change of government
After Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as UK prime minister, he undertook a substantial revamp of his Cabinet-level and junior ministerial team, including at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). At the top, Robert Jenrick replaced James Brokenshire as communities secretary, while former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey was brought in as housing minister, with a Cabinet seat and responsibility for planning matters.
The changes may owe much to the new appointees’ loyalty to Johnson and their attitude to Brexit, but they could signal a change in approach at the MHCLG. Jenrick has expressed support for policies to support small builders and build homes on disused public land to sell to the under-40s. It remains to be seen whether policies in the pipeline under the previous regime will survive.
The timing of Brexit remains a key factor in determining whether legislative and bureaucratic resources remain available to carry through work in other policy areas. With a game of chicken being played out between Johnson and Europe, uncertainty hangs over the direction of government policy.
Chancellor Sajid Javid announced in September’s one-year Spending Round a 4.1 per cent increase in departmental spending, including a 2.7 per cent real terms increase in the resource budget for the MHCLG, between 2019/20 and 2020/21.The settlement includes £241 million from the Towns Fund in 2020/21 to support the regeneration of town centres and continued funding for the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse programmes. The government also announced continuing support for major transport projects and a £200 million fund for improvements to bus services.
In March, the government announced that it would publish an "accelerated planning green paper" this autumn. Details were scant but the clear – and familiar – aim is to remove any blockages in the planning system seen as frustrating the government’s aim of increasing housebuilding.
In July, Simon Gallagher, director of planning at the MHCLG, told the Planning Officers Society annual conference that the green paper will address resourcing issues, with ministers looking at opportunities for councils to recover more of their costs through fees, linked to performance improvements.
Sector experts have suggested that the government is unlikely to undertake a major overhaul requiring primary legislation. One commentator suggested that measures could include the greater use of neighbourhood development orders, local development orders and simplified planning zones to speed up delivery. Others have voiced scepticism that the paper will arrive on time, or at all, following the change of government.
New change of use rights
In May, the government introduced extensions to the permitted development (PD) regime, allowing the conversion of shops and other high street uses to offices and hot food takeaways to homes. However, it decided to take more time to frame the wording of a proposed new PD right which will allow upward extensions of existing buildings to create new homes. The government said it was still committed to the idea, but no timeframe has been announced for the change.
Review of existing rights
Meanwhile, Brokenshire announced in this year’s Spring Statement that his department will carry out a review of permitted development rights. The review comes in response to worries that have been raised about the poor quality of a number of housing developments created under the new rights, with reports of tiny, windowless flats hitting the national press.
In the weeks before she left office, May called for minimum space standards for all new homes, suggesting that concern over the quality of new homes reached to the top of government. Her successor Johnson oversaw the introduction of minimum space standards in the London Plan, suggesting this is one policy that might survive the change of regimes.
Removal of existing rights
A High Court judgment at the beginning of this year severely curtailed the ability of developers to use the permitted development right to install telephone kiosks as a way to create advertising space. The government confirmed in May that it intended to remove the right through new regulations, allowing local authorities greater control over the appropriate location of phone kiosks.
Housing delivery test
The test applies sanctions to all local planning authorities in which, in the three years up to the preceding April, housing delivery was less than 95 per cent of their requirement, with the severity of the sanction varying according to the extent of the underperformance.
The first set of results, released in February this year, showed that 86 councils have delivered under 85 per cent, which means they have to now add a 20 per cent buffer to their land supply. A total of 108 authorities, including the 86 mentioned, delivered under 95 per cent and were required to produce an action plan setting out how they intend to improve performance.
On 1 September, new regulations came into force, making a series of changes to the way in which local authorities charge, collect and report on developer contributions raised through section 106 planning obligations and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).
Among the changes, the regulations remove a restriction that previously prevented more than five
section 106 obligations being used to fund any individual infrastructure project. They also introduce a new requirement for councils to annually publish infrastructure funding statements setting out how much CIL and section 106 income is collected and spent and what it is spent on.
Other measures include greater flexibility for local authorities consulting on CIL charging schedules and allowing councils to seek section 106 contributions towards the monitoring and reporting of planning obligations.
No sooner had the ink dried on a wide-ranging set of revisions to planning policy guidance than Johnson was announcing a new review of planning regulations. He promised a wide-ranging examination of the tools available - naming planning rules, stamp duty and "housing zones" as areas of interest. The aim, he said, will be to tackle the gap he identified between people who can and can’t afford to buy a new home.
Better housing design
The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission published an interim report in July and is due to produce its final report by the end of the year.
Jenny Thomas, head of built environment at the MHCLG, told the Planning Officers Society annual conference that national Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) will be updated in the autumn with new design content that will focus on the process of incorporating design principles into the planning system. In addition, a design manual will be produced, demonstrating good practice examples of design.
The new Johnson government was quick to announce a new proposal to create ten "freeports" across the UK. An announcement said that freeports can "reduce costs and bureaucracy, encouraging manufacturing businesses to set up or re-shore".
Although the government statement mentioned the removal of planning rules as one of a number of benefits of freeports in other areas around the world, the Department for International Trade said no decisions had yet been taken about whether UK freeports would be offered such flexibilities. A new advisory panel is set to start work before the end of the year on recommending what restrictions could be removed.
TRANSPORT AND INFRASTRUCTURE
In September, a consultation on the expansion of London Heathrow Airport, including a new third runway, closed. The exercise was carried out as part of the development consent order process. According to reports, Johnson has decided not to attempt to influence the process, after his well-publicised opposition to expansion of the facility during his time as mayor of London.
A spanner could be thrown in the works by campaigners Plan B and Friends of the Earth, who were in July granted permission to appeal against rejection of their challenges to the Heathrow expansion and the government’s airports national planning statement.
Last year, Highways England narrowed down options for a new road link between Abingdon, south of Oxford, and Milton Keynes. The road is viewed as a key component in opening up new development in the arc taking in Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes. A consultation on the two remaining routes is due to begin this autumn.
In June, the government confirmed that it will consult on proposals to simplify planning processes in England to support the further rollout of 4G and introduce 5G networks. The move follows the government’s publication last year of its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, which outlined plans to extend full-fibre broadband coverage across the country by 2033 and for the majority of the population to have access to 5G mobile coverage by 2027. No timetable for the consultation process was announced.
The final report of a review of England’s ten national parks and 34 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) is due to report this autumn. The review, chaired by writer and journalist Julian Glover, will report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. An interim report published earlier this year said that "AONBs should be strengthened, with increased funding, new purposes and a greater voice on development".
Earlier this year, the Planning Inspectorate said that it expects to complete a recruitment drive for new senior planning inspectors by this autumn. The inspectorate is attempting to find more staff to improve its performance after failing to meet targets for timely decision-making on appeals. The recruitment drive follows a key recommendation in a government-commissioned review of the appeal inquiry process by economist Bridget Rosewell.
House extension fees
A £96 application fee for prior approval of residential extensions carried out under permitted development rights came into effect on 19 August. In July, the government’s chief planning officer, Steve Quartermain, wrote to council planning chiefs to advise that regulations to introduce the fee had been laid in Parliament. The £96 fee applies to prior approval applications for rear residential extensions of up to eight metres in length for detached houses and six metres for semi-detached and terraced properties. Exemptions from fees are available for extensions and alterations to disabled people’s dwellings.