The Government's recently published White Paper entitled Planning for the Future is a consultation on a package of proposals “to streamline and modernise the planning process” in England. It consults on improving building design and sustainability, reforming developer financial contributions towards site-specific infrastructure and securing land for future development.

This article forms part of our series of articles exploring the White Paper from different angles. Here, we cover the new approach to plan-making and briefly discuss the potential implications upon landowners, developers and local authorities.

At the core of the Government’s drive to reform the local plan system is a desire to simplify the identification of land for development, both by removing complexity from the plan making system itself and by introducing unambiguous categories for the allocation of land within plans.

In common with many other elements within the White Paper, the real focus when it comes to local plans, is a ‘need for speed’. The ambitious proposals include a suggested statutory target of 30 months to put in place new local plans, measured from the date on which the necessary legislation is brought into force. This would be extended to 42 months in the case of local planning authorities who have adopted a new local plan within the three years prior to the legislation coming into force, or, at the requisite time, have a local plan submitted for examination.

In order to achieve these ambitious targets, it is suggested that the content of the local plan should be reduced, with the majority of the development management policies being drawn instead from national policy, contained in the NPPF. In addition, some of the most controversial elements of the plan-making process such as the duty to co-operate and the sustainability appraisal system would be abolished.

Perhaps most controversially, it is suggested that housing numbers should be driven not by local planning authorities, but rather imposed by the operation of a ‘standard method’ that allocates the number of homes each local authority area must accommodate. The choice as to how this is delivered will be left up to each authority, although a national requirement will be the delivery of 300,000 homes per year and a million new homes within the anticipated lifetime of this Parliament.

In terms of process, the 30 month plan-making period will be broken down into five stages, with the bulk of the time taken up with the preparation of the plan (Stage 2 – 12 months) and the examination of the plan by an appointed inspector (Stage 4 – 9 months). In assessing a draft plan, the Inspector would no longer need to apply the test of ‘soundness’; instead plans would be assessed against a single, statutory, sustainable development test, details of which have not yet been published.

The product of this system would be a relatively slim, digitally accessible document, which identifies land to meet future development needs (including housing, commercial and community needs) of the plan area for a minimum period of ten years, subject to review at least every five years.

A further simplification will be to allocate land into one of three categories:

  1. Growth areas – land suitable for comprehensive development or re-development including new settlements and urban extensions.
  2. Renewal areas – land suitable for development. It is envisaged that this would include land within existing built areas and potentially the densification or expansion of existing residential areas.
  3. Protected areas – land that justifies more stringent development control to meet the underlying need for sustainability. This may include Green Belt, AONBs, Conservation Areas, flood risk areas and Local Wildlife Sites.

In relation to growth areas, it is proposed that the effect of an allocation will be that outline planning consent will be conferred on those areas with the adoption of the plan. Detailed design is to be addressed either through a reformed reserved matters process, local development orders, or in the case of significant new development e.g. new towns, potentially through the development consent order process.

Perhaps surprisingly, the White Paper does propose the retention of the Neighbourhood Plan system, though potentially in a slightly modified form.

It is no surprise that these proposals have proved to be controversial, with all protagonists in the local plan system facing significant changes to the way in which they operate. The real winners here are perhaps landowners looking for certainty as to whether or not their land will be likely to be developable, with simplified allocations providing clearer answers. We have, however, explored some potential pitfalls for landowners in other commentary on this subject.

Greater challenges lie ahead for local authorities who will likely find the accelerated plan-making process to be a significant draw on resources, particularly when dealing with proposals for growth areas, which will be granted outline planning permission on the adoption of plans. The accelerated timetable, and the threat of sanctions for those authorities who don’t comply will, no doubt, create further headaches. Similarly, we envisage that promoters and developers will face increased, upfront, demands on their resources when seeking allocation for land as growth areas, due to the additional information that is likely to be required to allow such an allocation to be made. There will, however, be benefits for those developers who secure sites in allocated growth areas as the slimmed down requirements for obtaining full consents should reduce outlay and also the time it takes before getting a spade in the ground.