Time for radical reform? by Angus Walker

As we tentatively take steps towards easing the lockdown and returning to normality, there has been quite a lot of talk about using that return as an opportunity for more radical changes to the planning system.

The lockdown has not just increased the urgency of an economic recovery, but it has given us time to think more strategically, and the (beneficial) changes in behaviour such as more involvement in the planning system of those unable to leave home easily, more 'active travel' (i.e. walking and cycling), and less air pollution are improvements that we don't want to lose.

Having said that, most of the mooted proposals deal with the economic recovery element and not the others.

A suggestion early in the lockdown was of moving to US- or New Zealand-style zoning, where (usually urban areas) are given a designation such as residential or industrial, which together with a set of parameters mean that anything that is of the zone type and that satisfied the parameters can be built with little or no further permission required. That suggestion seems to have faded from view, though. In its place there has been talk of making more use of the existing power of Local Development Orders, where planning regimes are simplified in designated zones, which could be tied in with the current Freeport proposals.

Another proposal, from the 'Unlock Britain Commission', a group that promises new economic thinking in the wake of COVID-19.is to introduce a cut-down Development Consent Order process for a wider set of smaller projects, which might only be regionally rather than nationally significant. That could indeed be a runner, although the track record of extending the regime beyond energy and transport has not been that great, with no applications for business or commercial projects yet made in over six years of it being possible. Making the regime compulsory for the smaller projects just as it currently is for larger ones would certainly 'encourage' use of the regime, but is probably a step too far.

Then there is 'Project Speed', the nickname for the government's plans to fast track major infrastructure building projects.

Finally, the government has pledged (threatened?) to 'rethink planning from first principles', although what that would entail has not been specified. It is certainly true that the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, whose 30th birthday I think passed relatively unmarked on 24 May, has become highly unwieldy with whole swathes of added sections, amended ones and repealed ones (although not too many of the latter). The 1990 Act was in fact a consolidation act (i.e. it just reorganised existing law) and it was really the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 a year later that made changes. Perhaps the same process could be undertaken this time?

The above proposals don't address the country recovering to a greener position than it was before the pandemic started, though - that area still needs thought and action if the pandemic is not just to be a temporary diversion from the too-slow path we were previously on.

Angus Walker is a partner at BDB Pitmans.

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