Gordon Brown has put the need to bolster the UK’s international competitiveness at the top of his economic agenda. As part of this he has said that 2008 will be a “decisive year” in long term changes to and reform of the planning system.

As a step on this path on 17 December 2007 the Government issued an important consultation paper on a new Planning Policy Statement (“PPS”) which is to be called “PPS4: Planning for Sustainable Economic Development”.

Whilst the consultation paper is commendably short, with only 12 pages of proposed new policy guidance, it will be welcomed by many as heralding a significantly more positive and flexible approach from the Government to encourage the delivery of sustainable economic development.

In every planning decision many conflicting considerations often need to be weighed in the balance. The new guidance would, however, create a shift in emphasis towards attaching greater importance to the economic benefits of development in weighing all the pros and cons.

The guidance is intended to address growing concerns that unless the planning system can help deliver more growth, the UK’s economy may be open to greater challenge from the pace of change in the global economy and in particular from newly industrialised countries.

Below we summarise the consultation paper’s main provisions:-

WHAT IS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?

Virtually all forms of commercial development will benefit from the proposed guidance. It will include retail, leisure, offices, most types of industry, housing, waste, energy, hospitals and further education establishments.

Interestingly the consultation paper expressly confirms that for retail, leisure and offices the guidance would apply to development both in and outside town centres. It is not immediately clear why this is clarified for those uses alone. It may be because the in-town/out-of-town debate has been particularly relevant to those uses and the Government wants to clarify that out of town proposals will also benefit from the proposed guidance.

Out of town developers will also be comforted as the draft guidance says account will need to be taken of the size of site required for a business. This could be interpreted as giving greater flexibility under the sequential test in PPS6 where a “format” driven approach has traditionally been resisted.

A NEW POSITIVE AND CONSTRUCTIVE APPROACH

One problem which often faces developers is when a scheme which would be sensible and beneficial in planning terms emerges, but it does not have specific support from an adopted development plan. There is then often a concern that whilst the development may be very welcome it needs to go through the hoops and secure an express allocation within a plan before a planning application may be submitted or approved. This can take a very long time and delay important regeneration. The Government appears to have recognised that in these cases a need for greater flexibility should be expressly recognised.

As a result the consultation paper recommends:-

  • an “evidence based” approach to proposals which do not have the specific support of plan policies using relevant market and other economic information as well as environmental and social information;
  • that authorities should consider proposals favourably “unless there is a good reason” to believe that the economic, social and/or environmental costs of the development are “likely to outweigh the benefits”;
  • that full account is taken of the long term benefits, as well as the cost of development, such as job creation or improved productivity including wider benefits to the national, regional or local economy.

This new guidance will be helpful to developers who, as a result of changes in the local economy or technological innovations, come forward with proposals which were not anticipated when the development plan was adopted. In these cases local planning authorities would now be urged to carry out a cost benefit analysis rather than just apply a strict planning policy approach.

Whilst consistent with the requirement to determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise, the new guidance would mark a shift in emphasis. It would make it clear that unless there is a good reason to believe that the economic, social and/or environmental costs of a development are likely to outweigh the benefits then permission should be granted even if there is an inconsistency with the development plan policy.

MAXIMUM NATIONAL CAR PARKING STANDARDS TO BE ABANDONED

The consultation paper recommends that the maximum car parking standards set out in PPG13: Transport issued in 2001 should be scrapped and not replaced at a national level.

The cancellation of these standards will not occur until PPS4 is actually published, but they currently appear at Annex D of PPG13. For example, for food retail the standard is one space per 14 sq m, for non-food retail it is one space per 20 sq m and for offices it is one space per 30 sq m.

It is not intended that the removal of these maximums will create a free-for-all as it is envisaged that local standards will be set by local planning authorities. In many cases local authorities will already have their own standards which may well be more onerous than the national standards which are now to be scrapped.

The removal of this tier of control does, however, increase flexibility for local authorities to reach their own decisions on the appropriate amount of parking using a criteria based approach.

RURAL DEVELOPMENT

In an interesting statement the consultation paper says that whilst accessibility by non-car modes remains an important consideration, local planning authorities may have to recognise that a site is an acceptable location for development even though it may not be readily accessible by public transport.

The statement is important as it demonstrates a more pragmatic approach to what is often a major difficulty in promoting significant new development in rural areas.

POSITIVE PLANNING

The use of greater flexibility is recommended to regional planning bodies and local planning authorities. They are urged to plan for flexibility as it is clear that not all economic factors can be taken into account at the plan making stage.

Local authorities are advised not to designate sites for single or restrictive uses wherever possible and are recommended to adopt a positive approach to a range of uses on particular sites provided they are for employment uses.

Due to increasing demands on land availability authorities should also seek to make the most efficient and effective use of land and buildings, especially vacant or derelict buildings including historic buildings.

Local authorities are also encouraged to include a policy on tall buildings within their development plans.

LOCAL DEVELOPMENT ORDERS AND SIMPLIFIED PLANNING ZONES

The consultation paper recommends the use of specific planning tools such as local development orders and simplified planning zones to help authorities secure development or redevelopment by removing the need for separate planning applications.

It is interesting to see this reference to simplified planning zones as whilst this underused legislative creation can deliver real benefits in terms of flexibility within a controlled set of parameters, the Government has blown hot and cold in recent years on their use. This new reference should be welcomed.

TIMING

The consultation period ends on 17 March 2008 and the Government hopes to adopt the final version of the policy in Spring/Summer 2008.

There is no doubt that the consultation paper proposes new guidance which should be welcomed by developers.

It increases the emphasis on economic factors and the need for competition and supports development which after a cost and benefit analysis does not lead to unacceptable harm notwithstanding that it may not strictly accord with the provisions of a development plan.