Big Permissions Nov 19 - May 20: where they were granted, what they comprise, who applied, and who advised

The announcement of lockdown on 23 March 2020 proved to be a watershed for the issuing of large planning permissions, as it was in so many other ways for British society.

Our latest survey of big planning permissions, which covers the period from 16 November 2019 to 31 May 2020, reveals a healthy pipeline of big schemes coming through the planning system compared with the same period last year.

But a closer look at the dates of permissions being issued shows that the lockdown coming into effect on 23 March 2020 unsurprisingly had a major impact. With appeals grinding to a halt and planning committees being cancelled, the supply of big permissions continued, but at a much slower rate. 

Housing

Overall, 60 planning permissions for housing schemes of 500 or more homes were granted during the period, with 47 granted before the lockdown and 13 after the 23 March announcement, according to our data. Between 16 November 2019 and 23 March 2020 – a period which includes the two-week Christmas and New Year period as well as the general election purdah period – an average of 2.6 big housing permissions were issued per week. But between 23 March and 31 May, this figure fell to 1.4.

The list of big housing permissions granted consent features urban extensions, several in the East Midlands or the East of England, mixed-use redevelopments in cities and estate regeneration schemes, mostly in London.

The largest consent was for a 4,000-home urban extension of Attleborough in Norfolk, followed by the Durieshill housing development in Stirling, Scotland (3,012 homes), and the Purfleet Centre Regeneration in Thurrock (2,850 homes).

Jay Mehta, director at law firm Howes Percival, which worked on the Attleborough project, said it was a scheme which had been formally allocated in the Breckland Council's local plan, adopted last year. "The planning permission was granted a week into lockdown, so – save for some socially distanced exchange of documents and signing of the section 106 agreement – the current pandemic did not fortunately delay the issue of planning permission," he says.

David Jackson, head of planning at consultancy Savills, says the data shows that the supply of large sites coming forward from local plans prepared over the past five to six years is starting to bear fruit. According to Nick Freer, chairman at consultancy David Lock Associates, which was involved in a scheme at land west of Worcester, this reflects the urgency the government has given to tackling the housing crisis. "The general messaging on high housing need in particular is something getting through to local authorities," he says.

The improvement in the nationwide coverage of development plans in recent years has improved the pipeline of urban extensions, Freer says. "One of the differences between urban extensions as compared with urban regeneration projects is that they are a bit more development-plan-dependent," he says.

Jonathan Steele, head of housing in the planning division at Savills, says the development industry was "very active" before the lockdown announcements. "And that was everything from regeneration all the way through to greenfield urban extensions," he says. This activity was experienced across the
country and in all regions, he adds.

The main impact of the lockdown was practical, commentators report, with all professionals involved quickly having to adapt to the new situation and try to create ways around the restrictions which would allow planning activity to continue.

Jackson says the challenges included having to deal with clients with staff on furlough, leaving fewer people to continue with the work in progressing applications. "But once the system had worked out how to progress things through lockdown, it proved to be pretty agile," he says. "Local authorities werepretty quick in getting virtual planning committees set up."

Many of the major permissions coming through are "projects that have been ongoing for many, many years", says Bernadette Hillman, partner at law firm Sharpe Pritchard. Hillman says her firm acts for several local authorities. She adds that, despite the temporary pause caused by lockdown, "all the councils have prided themselves on the fact that they have been able to get online and get things moving".

Colette McCormack, partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, says it is "really positive" that the housing list includes a wide mix of greenfield and brownfield schemes. "It is great to see estate regeneration schemes coming forward, and now it is all about delivery and for everyone to come through working together," she says.

London was the region with the highest levels of affordable housing secured from big schemes, with 36.5 per cent on average, according to the data. Roy Pinnock, partner at law firm Dentons, says London mayor Sadiq Khan's "muscular approach to fast-tracking viability" has been effective in ensuring schemes reach the benchmark target of 35 per cent affordable housing.

"But it remains to be seen, particularly in this current market, how these schemes will play out and if they are still viable at 35 per cent affordable housing," he adds.

Karen Cooksley, partner and head of planning at Winckworth Sherwood, agrees that the 35 per cent fast track scheme has helped the flow of permissions. "I think also that the standardisation and greater understanding of how you calculate viability has helped as well," she says.

The local authorities which granted the most big planning permissions were Birmingham, Ealing, Salford and Barnet, with three each, with a further big application being allowed on appeal in Barnet.

Salford's three big permissions were all residential schemes, including the Greengate area regeneration project, which incorporates three tall buildings and a new public park. The city council's lead member for planning and sustainable development, Cllr Derek Antrobus, says he was pleased to see the flow of
permissions continue through the pandemic. "We immediately took our planning panel meetings online so we didn't hold up decision-making, and this has clearly paid off," he says.

Non-residential

The number of big retail and leisure permissions per week fell from one pre-lockdown to 0.5 post-lockdown, and the number of commercial and industrial big permissions similarly fell from one per week on average pre-lockdown to 0.3 per week post-lockdown.

A clear theme emerging from the retail and leisure category is that major town centre retail-led redevelopment schemes are conspicuous by their absence from the list. Mehta says this reflects the fact that the retail sector has "struggled for many years". The Covid-19 pandemic, he says, "may unfortunately be the final straw that breaks many retailers, while others are refocusing their business to more of an online presence".

Nick Taylor, head of planning at consultancy Carter Jonas, agrees. "We have been talking for a while about the health and the future of our town centres, and we are all seeing the same thing," he says. "Nobody is putting town centre redevelopment schemes forward which provide lots more retail because of the view that many town centres are contracting."

Practitioners agree that the retooling of town centres will be a predominant theme over the coming months and years, particularly in the context of the pandemic and the government's reforms to the use classes order. Pinnock argues that the current economic problems may act as a spur to some redevelopment schemes, if the deflated value of stock in town centres spurs landlords to bring forward redevelopment.

For the leisure sector, Mehta argues that there is "far more optimism". "We are continuing to see a steady stream of new planning applications for leisure-led schemes, which indicates there will continue to be a demand," he says.

This is borne out in the Big Permissions list, with the largest retail and leisure schemes granted consent being mainly focused on leisure uses, rather than being retail-led.

The largest permission in this category was the SnOasis ski centre and holiday resort in Suffolk, which encompasses over 103,000 square metres of leisure floorspace.

The project is a holiday resort scheme on a site in Great Blakenham near Stowmarket, incorporating a ski slope, ice rinks and a bobsleigh run. The scheme has a long planning history, but consent was granted in March for the reserved matters pursuant to the outline permission already granted.

Law firm Sharpe Pritchard worked on the SnOasis planning consent for transport and highways authority Suffolk County Council. The firm's partner, Bernadette Hillman, reports that Mid Suffolk District Council used emergency delegated powers to issue the consent, with the planning committee having been unable to meet due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Other notable schemes in the retail and leisure category were the Therme wellbeing resort in Trafford, Greater Manchester, on the site of the EventCity exhibition centre. Also coming through was permission for a proposed new arena for Bristol on the site of the former Brabazon air hangar buildings in Filton.

The largest planning permission during the period in the commercial and industrial category was an outline planning permission for the Wellington Place scheme in Leeds. Situated on the edge of the city centre, the area has now become the city's main office hub, reports Alison Mackay, planning consultant at CBRE, which acted for the applicants on the scheme.

Mackay reports that the outline permission is for a new masterplan for the undeveloped land at the Wellington Place estate which was originally granted outline consent in 2008. Since the latest outline consent was granted, Mackay says the city council granted reserved matters approval in March for thefirst phase of the scheme, which is due to start on-site towards the end of the year. This indicates that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, it is "full steam ahead" for the project, Mackay says.

Other major schemes include the mixed-use regeneration of the Purfleet Centre in Essex, a large part of which incorporates film and television studios; and the flagship Martineau Galleries scheme in Birmingham, which will be a mixed-use scheme including offices and which will be situated adjacent to the city's new High Speed rail terminus.

The Biggest Infrastructure Schemes of the last year

Nine nationally significant infrastructure projects that received development consent orders in the year to 30 May 2020.

A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross scheme

Date: 6 February 2020
Applicant: Highways England
Project description: Upgrade from single to dual carriageway.

Reinforcement to North Shropshire electricity distribution network

Date: 20 March 2020
Applicant: SP Manweb
Project description: The installation of a new 132kV overhead line.

A585 Windy Harbour to Skippool improvement scheme

Date: 9 April 2020
Applicant: Highways England
Project description: Up to 5km of new two-lane dual carriageway.

Riverside Energy Park

Date: 9 April 2020
Applicant: Cory Riverside Energy
Planning advisers: Stantec. Project description: Integrated energy park of over 50 MW-generating capacity in Bexley, London.

Lake Lothing Third Crossing

Date: 30 April 2020
Applicant: Suffolk County Council
Project description: A new highway crossing of a lake in Lowestoft.

West Midlands Interchange

Date: 4 May 2020
Applicant: Four Ashes Ltd
Consultants: Quod, WSP, FPCR, Ramboll, Chetwoods, Savills
Legal advisers: Eversheds Sutherland
Project description: Intermodal freight terminal including container storage, HGV parking and around 800,000 sq m of rail-served warehousing and a new rail terminal, west of junction 12 of the M6 motorway in Staffordshire.

M42 Junction 6 Improvement

Date: 21 May 2020
Applicant: Highways England
Project description: Motorway improvements supporting access to Birmingham Airport and preparing capacity for the HS2 station

Cleve Hill Solar Park

Date: 28 May 2020
Applicant: Cleve Hill Solar Park
Planning advisers: Arcus Consultancy Services
Project description: Photovoltaic array, and electrical storage and connection infrastructure, with a 50MW-plus generation capacity

A63 Castle Street Improvement, Hull

Date: 28 May 2020
Applicant: Highways England
Project description: Improvements to 1.5km of the A63 and connecting side roads in Hull.

Additional research by Ram Kumar


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