Hard to gauge the impact of any eventual Brexit on planning and development, by Cliff Hague

With the election in full swing, it remains difficult to know just what form Brexit might take - if indeed it happens. It is even harder to guess what impacts it might have on planning and development.

Planning has always been a matter reserved to the member states, and so something over which the EU has no competence. So planners should expect no change directly attributable to Brexit in the legislation and procedures that affect their day-to-day work. Even with a hard Brexit, it would take time for the UK government and devolved administrations to remove environmental impact assessment requirements, which are probably the most notable legacy of the EU on the way that planning practice operates here.

October’s Withdrawal Bill was seen by some as pointing towards a surge of deregulation once the transition period ends, as some commitments in the earlier withdrawal agreement had been shifted to the less binding political declaration. If this does prove to be the eventual direction of travel, we could expect further deregulation of planning in England, for example on viability and affordable housing, which could have ripple effects on the devolved administrations. Scottish planning minister Kevin Stewart MSP has repeatedly stated that he does not want more "barriers to business" in Scotland than there are south of the border.

Unless there is a very soft Brexit, the European regional development funds that have been used to support business and infrastructure in areas such as Cornwall and West Wales will disappear. If the election result is finely balanced, we might expect to see some sort of replacement funds – perhaps carefully targeted at marginal seats.

More generally, there are important questions about what impact any form of Brexit might have on the development industry across different parts of the country. It is widely recognised that the prolonged uncertainty since the 2016 referendum has had adverse impacts on investor confidence. While expectations of what will follow have been tinged by attitudes towards Brexit, even pro-Brexit politicians have spoken euphemistically of "bumps in the road" before the benefits they anticipate. Growing concerns about the global economy can also be factored in. Any fiscal gap could reinvigorate austerity, regardless of what is being said during the election campaign, further sapping local government capacity or government appetite for tough carbon-reduction actions. 

Whatever the macro economic trends, the weakest regions will be hit first, suffer most and recover last, just as it will be the marginal and difficult sites where development is most likely to stall. If Brexit seriously disrupts the just-in-time supply chains of big manufacturers, then places where these are major employers will take a hit that will ripple through to local high streets already struggling in the face of online shopping and weak consumer confidence. Meanwhile, expect a more permissive approach to development in rural areas if agricultural subsidies are eventually slashed.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher


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