How the White Paper could take new settlement decisions out of councils’ hands, by Angus Walker

The proposals set out in the government’s planning White Paper affect infrastructure planning in two major ways, including a potential new route for large-scale housing.

There has been exhaustive coverage of the planning changes proposed in the government’s planning White Paper published on 6 August, with opinions on it ranging from it being a “developers’ charter” to it marking the “dawn of a new era for beauty”. 

Whichever way it is, I am confident that it will not mean any loss of work for those in the planning sector, but at most a change of focus.

Anyway, this article is not about the proposed effects of the White Paper on town and country planning, but on infrastructure planning, which would be affected in two ways. 

First, there would be a new “infrastructure levy”, based on the likely sales value of new developments and levied at the point of occupation. This would replace the current means of collecting contributions from developers to the cost of the infrastructure needed to support their schemes through section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy.

Section 106 applies to development consent orders (DCOs), the means of obtaining permission for developing Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) through the Planning Inspectorate, just as much as it applies to planning permissions sought through local councils. It allows for “development consent obligations” to gather funds to mitigate development impacts on local communities.

I can, however, see problems with the applicability of the new levy to infrastructure projects, since they won’t necessarily be measurable in terms of the floorspace that a tariff calculation would be based on – what’s the floorspace of a series of pylons?

Nevertheless, many if not most DCO projects currently use section 106 agreements – will something equivalent still be available?

The second way the White Paper could affect infrastructure is somewhat buried in the document as a question. It asks: Do you think there is a case for allowing new settlements to be brought forward under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime?” 

That’s quite a significant question. There has been talk of development corporations delivering major housing developments, for instance along the Oxford to Cambridge arc. But that is about governance rather than the process that will be used, so is not an alternative to the suggestion of using the NSIP regime. Both could happen. 

Permission for housebuilding through the DCO regime has been possible since 2017, but no project has yet availed itself of this facility, currently limited to schemes of 500 dwellings or fewer. The proposed London Resort entertainment complex in Swanscombe, north Kent, currently undergoing statutory consultation with the public, may be the first to do so. If so, it would be a good first step of accommodating housing in the regime before larger settlements are permitted. 

Why haven’t there been any others yet? Partly because many infrastructure projects don’t lend themselves to adjacent housing - of all the types of NSIP that can be permitted through the DCO route, it was always going to be one in the ‘business or commercial’ category that would be first to include housing. Partly because the 500 figure is too low to make housebuilders seriously interested. And partly because infrastructure and housing specialists are in two fairly separate silos at the moment. 

Having standalone housing projects able to use the regime would solve the first problem, removing the limit on numbers would solve the second, and some cross-sector capacity-building would solve the third. If it worked for infrastructure sectors that hadn’t used anything like the DCO process before it was introduced in the Planning Act 2008, there is no reason why it wouldn’t work for housing too. 

A historic obstacle was the government’s previous commitment that local authorities should be responsible for housing permissions. But that philosophy seems to be evolving on many fronts, including with the White Paper proposal for central government to set housing numbers. So for ministers to decide on whether to allow new settlements would be consistent with the new approach.

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