The next few years are provisionally set to see a significant overhaul of the planning system, as many of the key proposals in the previous Government's ongoing programme of planning reform are due to be implemented. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 needs regulation to underpin it if it is to come into its full effect. Other forthcoming measures which may be called into question by the recent political upheaval include the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, modifications to the National Planning Policy Framework ("NPPF"), and changes to the way that local plans are formulated.
Brexit, followed by the appointment of a new Prime Minster who subsequently implemented arguably the most seismic cabinet reshuffle in recent political history has raised a number of key questions about the future of planning reform. Will planning reforms be sidelined in the post-Brexit upheaval? Or will they go ahead as planned? What will be the impact of the new team at the Department for Communities and Local Government, which includes Sajid Javid taking over as the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and Gavin Barwell taking over as new Minister for Housing and Planning? These are the questions this article will consider.
Could planning reform be sidelined in the post-Brexit political upheaval?
A number of experts have expressed concerns that the regulatory underpinning of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 may not be put in place in time, and that radical programme of upcoming planning reform will be more generally marginalised given the repercussions of Brexit and the Cabinet reshuffle.
The government already has a considerable backlog of domestic policy to get through that was put off pending the referendum. Although Theresa May was put in office more quickly than expected, it is likely that it will take time for ministers to get on top of their new briefs. Given this, and the fact that that the DCLG is responsible for devolution policy and administering EU structural funding, both issues that are likely to prove time-consuming and controversial post-Brexit, it is possible that the planning reform programme will not be delivered on the timescale intended before the referendum. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that the DCLG has seen one of the biggest cuts in its civil servants of almost any government department - over 35% since 2010.
Brexit already appeared to be sidelining the implementation of the planning reforms. In Sajid Javid's first appearance at the dispatch box most questions centred around whether or not he would retain infrastructure investment at EU levels. Javid described the future of regional aid as an 'absolute priority' post-Brexit, from which it can possibly be inferred that planning policy may have to take a back seat for now. For example, given that regulation has to be laid down to support the Housing and Planning Act 2016 in either April or October, it now looks 'increasingly unlikely' that it will come into force until next year (Mike Kiely, board chair of the Planning Officers Society).
However, although the pressure of Brexit on the DCLG and the priorities of the new Government may mean that planning policy is temporarily sidelined, it is possible that in the long-term the planning reform programme will go ahead mostly as intended, or indeed be prioritised by a Government anxious for economic stability.
Will the reform programme go ahead as planned?
Theresa May has certainly never expressed any strong views on planning beyond the usual Tory promises to build more homes whilst protecting the green belt . She also presented herself as the 'continuity candidate' in the Conservative leadership election, promising that her mandate as PM would come from the 2015 Conservative General Election Manifesto, which promised to deliver 200,000 new homes a year through a planning system based on the National Planning Policy Framework. This would seem to indicate that it is unlikely that Theresa May has any radical ideas for changes to the reform programme up her sleeve.
There also do not appear to be any indications from the DCLG that there will be any changes to the planning agenda, with a spokesperson for the Department recently telling Planning Resource that the government is 'continuing to work to deliver its agenda and take forward the important legislation that we set before Parliament in the Queens Speech'. On his appointment, Sajid Javid said that his priorities will be "to build more homes and increase home ownership, devolve powers to local areas and help communities deliver excellent public services". The new Housing and Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell also said that the government is still committed to building a million new homes. So again, there is certainly no radical change, or really any change at all as yet, in Tory planning policy.
In fact Brexit, far from leading to the scrapping of the planning reform programme in the long-term, may be the strongest argument for the Government to eventually go ahead with the planning reform programme as intended, or even to prioritise it. Commentators have opined that Theresa May will want to continue with these planning measures to provide stability post-Brexit and to make her mark as a Prime Minister committed to a robust industrial strategy. May indicated her commitment to such a strategy in a fascinating speech made shortly before Andrea Leadsom abandoned her leadership bid. May stressed the need to 'do far more to get houses built', as well as calling for more Treasury-backed bonds for new infrastructure projects as an 'industrial strategy to get the whole economy firing'. This may very well indicate that far from abandoning the planning reform programme, it may be prioritised as part of her broader economic strategy.
The upheaval of Brexit is likely to put a considerable strain on already reduced resources at the DCLG, which may lead to the planning reform agenda not being delivered on the timescale previously promised. However, in the long term the place of planning reform in the new post-Brexit political landscape seems stable. The new Prime Minister and the new team at the DCLG have not indicated that they intend to deviate from the previous Government's commitment to planning reform, and have made several assurances that they intend to continue with the 2015 Manifesto's housebuilding commitments. Indeed, given the need to 'get the whole economy firing' that Theresa May highlighted in a recent speech, particularly vital since the post-Brexit instability, it is possible that planning reform could even be moved up the government agenda in years to come.