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Planning Reforms Should be Reconsidered, Government Warned

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The government's proposed planning reforms will not speed up housebuilding or make the process cheaper, a cross-party committee of MPs has warned.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee has published a report urging the government to reconsider the reforms, which include a zonal approach for planning and replacing Section 106 with a national infrastructure levy.

The MPs said in the report that they are unpersuaded that the proposed zonal approach to planning will produce a quicker, cheaper and democratic planning system, and called for further details to be provided. 

On the Section 106 proposal, the MPs say this could jeopardise the availability of affordable housing in the UK. They also argue that the government should stump up an extra £125m a year for local planning departments.

The new Planning Bill which relaxes on planning permission will go before parliament in autumn, but it looks set to be a rocky road to the House of Commons amid widespread opposition. 

This is what you need to know about about the planned reforms, why there is resistance to them, and how they could affect local communities. 

What's Being Proposed in the Planning Reforms?

The government's long-awaited Planning Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech in May, builds on the Planning For The Future white paper published last summer.

The Planning Bill comprises several key strands to create what the government says will be a more streamlined process. These include:

A traffic light system of zone planning

In August, the government recommended that a traffic light system of zone planning should be introduced which will classify land for either:

  • Growth 
  • Renewal 
  • Protection

Land in growth areas will benefit from automatic permission, while land in urban renewal areas will be granted permission in principle.

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This simplification of the rules will be included within the Planning Bill, and would make it more difficult for councils and homeowners to block new housing schemes.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee said in its report: “The government should reconsider the case for the three areas proposal. If the government does proceed with the principle of the three areas proposal, consideration should be given to the inclusion of additional categories. 

"Further details also need to be provided - particularly around how much detail will be needed in local plans, the impact of the three areas proposal on vital infrastructure, and who will determined if local plan requirements have been met.”

A digital planning system 

The document-based planning system currently in effect would move to a digital one. This is designed to improve the speed and efficiency of application decisions, and allow residents to be more engaged in the development of their local area.

At the moment, only 3% of local people engage with consultations on planning applications, according to the government.

In May, housing minister Christopher Pincher announced a £1.1 million fund to test the use of digital tools and data standards across 10 councils.

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Land will be designated for growth, renewal or protection under the new planning reforms (Image credit: Getty Images)

Scrapping Section 106

A new infrastructure levy has been proposed to replace Section 106, a legal agreement between an applicant seeking planning permission and the local planning authority. However, details on how the levy would work are yet to be outlined.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee is against this proposal. It says: "Preserving Section 106 will protect against a possible loss of affordable housing. If the government does proceed it will need to charge various local rates and provide additional funding for the infrastructure that will not be met out of the levy revenues.”

A Design Code

The reforms would also incorporate a National Model Design Code to improve the beauty, quality and design of homes in England. 

The code will include a 10-point checklist of design principles for councils to consider when approving new developments.

The code also includes references to custom and self build, with accompanying guidance underlying how design codes can encourage self build and custom build developments. 

Why Have New Planning Reforms Been Announced?

The last significant update to the planning system occurred in 1947 and the Planning Bill is designed to replace this legislation. 

The government said last summer it wanted to cut the planning system red tape, due to the current speed of housing development in England. It has pledged to build 300,000 new homes per year, but official figures show that only 192,725 homes were built last year. 

Under the current rules, it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system. The Planning Bill aims to significantly reduce this time. 

What Has the Reaction Been?

There has been a mixed reaction to the Planning Bill. Cross-party MPs, local government bodies and industry campaigners have expressed their reservations, and plan to oppose the reforms. 

Conservative MP Bob Seely told Huffington Post in May that the reforms could lead to the government receiving an election “spanking”, and up to 80 Conservative MPs are reportedly preparing to oppose the government’s proposals.     

Last month, housing secretary Robert Jenrick met sceptical Tory backbenchers to win them over to the proposed reforms, and hit back at claims by former prime minister Theresa May that it will create a “developers’ charter”.

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The new planning reforms will relax rules on planning permission and speed up the rate of housing developments. (Image credit: iStock)

Countryside campaigners meanwhile argue that the granting of outline permission in growth areas will diminish local involvement in planning, preventing locals from objecting to individual applications.

Tom Fyans, campaigns and policy director of CPRE, the countryside charity, warned: "The Planning Bill looks set to prioritise developers’ needs over local communities, provide no new environmental safeguards and could slow the delivery of genuinely affordable homes in many areas."

However, Mark Hayward, chief policy adviser at Propertymark, which represents estate and letting agents, welcomed the reforms: “We hope the Planning Bill outlined on Tuesday encourages the development of housing in more affordable areas as, at the moment, most of the development taking place is in areas that are unaffordable to first-time and lower-income buyers.

“The government has made a number of announcements in the past on simplifying the planning process; however, this will only work if it really reflects local needs and demands."

What's Next? 

The Planning Bill is expected to be brought before parliament in the autumn, following the summer recess, where the government will hope to have enough support to enter the bill into law. 

But before the reforms can be brought before parliament, the government still needs to review a considerable 44,000 responses issued in a consultation over the reforms, which closed in January.

Earlier this year, Mr Pincher also confirmed that a new Environment Bill will be brought before parliament this year and, if passed, will be embedded into the planning reforms.