What the new Tory government has in store for planning

Following the promised planning changes in the Tory manifesto, some observers believe we can expect a "radical" programme of further deregulation and simplification of the system, though such a move is likely to face fierce opposition in certain quarters.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pic: Getty)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pic: Getty)

The Conservative Party’s general election manifesto contained a range of references to the planning system which, while not fleshed out in detail, suggest an acceleration of the direction of travel of policy over recent years. Nick Gallent, professor of housing and planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, said: "The big focus is to support home ownership, but really it’s more of the same – supercharged."

One of the potentially most significant pledges in the manifesto is to "make the planning system simpler for the public and small builders". The calling of the election delayed publication of the government’s long-awaited Accelerated Planning White Paper, now a key item in housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s in-tray, and this line in the manifesto may simply be referring to those reforms, intended to simplify processes and give local authorities more flexibility on setting fees. 

However, this pledge could signal further reform beyond that already mooted. Chris Rumfitt, chief executive of public affairs Field Consulting, said: "Simplification and de-regulation of planning has already been the direction of travel for some time, and this election result potentially gives the government more ability and power to act on this."

Some in the sector suspect that even more radical deregulation of the planning system could now be on the cards. Jack Airey, head of housing for the influential right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange, said the body was conducting a review of the planning system, which he hoped would influence government thinking. "I hope the manifesto pledge leads to a full review of planning regulation, to move to a more certain system, and one that allocates more land for development."

UCL’s Gallent said: "I suspect ‘simpler’ planning will mean more dismantling of the regulatory system – getting rid of planning, with a strong focus on permitted development (PD) and a push on things like permission in principle."

The previous administration’s support for PD rights allowing residential conversions has faced increasing opposition from some sector bodies and local authorities, while the push to increase housing delivery through local plans prompted a backlash against Conservative council administrations in the wider south east in May’s local elections.

Mike Kiely, chairman of local authority body the Planning Officers’ Society, said he was optimistic that Boris Johnson in practice would continue with the "realistic" planning policies that characterised his time as London mayor. However, he feared the impact of a deregulatory approach: "The strong free market agenda is never a good thing for planning because it doesn’t recognise the regulation needed to ensure fairness in the system."

However, Airey said the "new electoral map" would make radical planning reform easier, a point echoed by Field’s Rumfitt. He said: "His majority can liberate him from the party’s ‘nimby’ forces."

Another key manifesto pledge is to use developer contributions, such as section 106 agreements, to fund discounted homes for sale to "local" people at a third below the market rate. This is, in principle, a similar idea to David Cameron’s "Starter Homes" initiative – albeit with a more generous discount – which foundered on a lack of support from mortgage lenders.

Kiely said planners were not opposed to the idea in principle, as long as authorities retained the ability to decide whether or not to require these homes in their area. Under Cameron’s original plans – later dropped – planning authorities were to be required to ensure all schemes were 20 per cent comprised of Starter Homes.

This looks like Starter Homes mark two, fitting with the political drive for home ownership," said Rumfitt. "The question is how free local authorities will be to consent this or not." Gallent added: "It would be very worrying if the government were to prescribe the type of housing that authorities could provide in certain locations – this has to be led by local areas. It would obviously cut into the supply of other affordable homes."

The manifesto’s biggest remaining planning pledge is to amend planning rules to ensure that infrastructure, such as schools and roads, is always provided prior to construction of new housing schemes. This would be backed by a £10 billion "Single Housing Infrastructure Fund". David Scane, associate partner at public affairs consultancy Newgate Communications, said something "broad" in policy might be helpful in implementing this idea, but warned that any legal requirement could be problematic. "Something blanket could put developers off from certain sites," he said.

Martin Curtis, an associate director at political engagement firm Curtin & Co, expressed concerns that without significant funding to pay for the infrastructure, this requirement could slow down housing delivery. "It shows a bit of a lack of understanding of how planning and development work," he said.

Potentially significant too is the prospect of further devolution of powers to local authorities, with an English Devolution White Paper promised. Curtis said this could spark moves to unitary councils and council mergers, something Jenrick said he supported at the Tory Party conference in October. Curtis said: "This is a great hope in delivering real change in local government, which could take some of the parochialism out of decision-making."

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