The Localism Bill received Royal Assent on 15 November 2011.  Over the next few weeks Eversheds will produce a comprehensive series of briefings on the Act.  The first one is about changes in relation to Planning.

The key Planning provisions in the final legislation are as follows:

  • Abolition of regional strategies: the Act enables the Secretary of State to abolish regional strategies (“RSs”), a longstanding intention of the Coalition Government.  This removal of the regional tier of planning policy will increase the importance of local level policy and complements the introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships, intended to encourage greater private sector involvement in regional planning.  It remains to be seen whether this will create greater scope for flexibility and market driven planning or result in a loss of consistency in approach.
  • Duty to cooperate: Local authorities and other public bodies are now obliged to work together on planning issues.  This may go some way to addressing any disparities in policy approach in the absence of RSs.  However it will still be important for developers to build relationships with local authorities to engender support for development proposals.
  • Neighbourhood Plans and Development Orders: The plans offer scope for local communities (residents, employees and businesses) working through a parish council or neighbourhood forum to specify where new development should go and how it should look.  In addition, “Neighbourhood Development Orders” provide a tool for local communities to grant full or outline planning permission for certain developments.  Both policies are firmly directed towards facilitation, and neither offer a mechanism for refusing or blocking potential development.  Furthermore, any policies drawn up must be consistent with the local development plan (of which they will become part).  There is some potential for developers to drive and guide these plans to ensure community support for potential development.  However, developers would also be advised to follow the progression of all Neighbourhood Plans in areas where they have an interest, to ensure that they do not undermine potential future developments.
  • Community consultation: the Act introduces a requirement for developers to consult local communities before the submission of some planning applications.  Many developers already conduct pre-application consultation.  However, care will now need to be taken to ensure that such processes are robust and compliant with the requirements in the legislation.  This will be particularly important for more controversial developments, in order to insulate them from any vulnerability to legal challenge.
  • Reforming the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL): these changes are intended to provide greater clarity and consistency in the cost of developments.  The provisions also provide that a 'meaningful proportion' of revenue raised through the levy in each neighbourhood must now be delivered back to that neighbourhood. However, site-specific planning obligations are still likely to be requested in circumstances where site-specific needs are not met through the levy.  This ‘localising’ of the CIL also has the potential to lead to differences between charging schemes and the approaches local authorities take to infrastructure provision, with the result that some areas may start to become more attractive to developers than they otherwise would.
  • Nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs): one of the first planning policies set out by the Coalition Government was the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission.  The Act enables this and restores responsibility for taking such decisions to Government ministers.  National policy statements, used to guide minsters’ decisions on NSIPs, can also now be voted on by Parliament.  Overall however changes to the major infrastructure planning system, introduced by Labour, have been relatively minimal.

Absences from Act

While much of the Act will be familiar from the Bill, the presumption in favour of sustainable development is absent, as is any statutory definition of sustainable development.  However this is likely to be set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, when published.  The final amendments to this document should, therefore, be watched vigilantly.

Coming into effect

Some parts of the Act are now in force, notably the duty between Councils to cooperate.  However, given the significant amount of secondary implementing legislation that the majority of provisions will require, most will not come into force until April 2012.  These include the community right to build and most of the planning reforms.