The likely risks and rewards of the proposed zonal plan system

Radical proposed changes to local plans, which would see them zone land into three development categories, is likely to mean more work for under-resourced council planning teams and could limit local authority control, some observers suggest. However, developers should welcome the greater certainty provided by the new system.

Zone-based planning will have wide ramifications - image: IHielord (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Zone-based planning will have wide ramifications - image: IHielord (CC BY-SA 4.0)

At the heart of the radical Planning for the Future white paper is a change that would see a new breed of local plans divide England into three categories of land use designations: "growth", "renewal" and "protected" areas.

Sites allocated in local plans for growth would have outline planning approval, automatically establishing the principle of development. Growth areas, according to the consultation paper, would be those suitable for "substantial" development, like new settlements, urban extensions and former industrial sites.

In the renewal areas, there would be a statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for specified suitable uses if it meets set criteria. Renewal areas, said the paper, could cover existing built-up areas where smaller-scale development is appropriate, such as residential infill, town centres and small sites on the edge of villages.

Protected land would include areas like green belt, conservation areas and parts of the open countryside not earmarked for growth. Such land would see the least change from the status quo, with individual planning applications still required to achieve permission.

Claire Dutch, partner and co-head of planning and environment at law firm Ashurst, said the plan-led system would be reinforced in growth and renewal areas. Planning committees will still make some decisions, particularly in protected areas, she pointed out. But even where the plan grants outline permission, developers will "still have to go in for reserved matters".

Much will depend in the mooted growth and renewal areas on how prescriptive the local plans prove to be, commentators suggested. The consultation document proposes that plans include design codes that are "more binding" on decisions.

"If design codes turn out to be cursory, there will be little meaningful control for local authorities," said Steve Barton, chair of the Planning Officers Society's spatial planning network.

The white paper's stated intention is that developments in growth and renewal areas should win approval if they meet set rules, such as for height and massing. But drawing up these sets of rules would be time-consuming, said Dutch, who described the government's proposed 30-month deadline for processing the new-style local plans as a "tough order". She said: "If they are going to stick with the parameter zoning approach, it will involve a lot of work. If someone is drafting detailed rules, they will
surely have to look in detail at the environmental impacts."

Simon James, managing director of consultancy DLP Planning, questioned how a scheme's transport and sustainability impacts would be appraised. These issues may end up being "front loaded" into local plans rather than being dealt with at the outline stage as happens now, he suggested.

Tim Hellier, head of planning at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, said the experience of his practice's New York office suggests that zoning is a "far from straightforward system". "You can see from US experience that with the best will in the world these systems grow like topsy," he said, noting how New York's zoning regulations have exploded from 258 to 1,500 pages since they were first drawn up.

"Unless these plans are going to be very high level, it is going to require a hell of a lot of resource and time to get them through," said Barton. Shaun Andrews, executive director at consultancy Nexus Planning, warned that many local authorities are already "chronically under-resourced".

This problem could be partially alleviated by the shifting demands on local authorities implied by the white paper, said Martin Hutchings, improvement manager at the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service. "If councils aren't required to do as much, like sustainability appraisals, potentially some of that should free up resource that could be reskilled and redirected," he said. The government's proposal that councils produce less of their own policies, which instead would be derived from national documents, will mean less work on this plan-making aspect, commentators suggested.

But what Barton described as a "massive grab of power by the centre" fails to recognise the vastly differing requirements of different parts of the country, he said, adding: "It would mean that complex issues like town centres will fall outside the remit of local planning authorities, so they will lose the ability to control what is in their interests. One set of uniform policy covering the breadth of England is nonsensical."

The new system could present opportunities for landowners and developers to generate value by putting forward sites as potential growth areas, said Andrews. "If this works, it will provide much-needed certainty for developers," said Dutch. Hellier said some owners and developers may be tempted to wait until the new system is in place before progressing sites.

Hutchings said some councils are worried about how they should progress work on their emerging plans, particularlywhether or not they ought to collect rafts of evidence that could be redundant under the new regime. This issue is particularly pressing given the government's threats of intervention if plans take too long to prepare. "They want to carry on, but in the most effective way possible, which may mean pausing," he said.

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