The centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange, previously responsible for influencing government policy in relation to free schools and police and crime commissioners, issued a report proposing ‘transformation of the planning system’ which the authors consider is in ‘urgent need of wholesale reform’.

The report finds fault with the slow process of adoption of local plans and criticises how quickly, following adoption, local plans become out of date. The report claims that land use allocations within adopted local plans end up stifling development within a local authority’s administrative area rather than promoting it and claims that the number of national and local planning policies affecting a development site can be ineffective and contradictory.

The following proposals stand out among a raft of proposed reforms:

  • Ending ‘detailed land use allocations’ – the report considers that the supply of new homes, offices and other types of land use should no longer be capped by local planning authorities in local plans or by site allocations;
  • The creation of a “binary zonal land use planning system” – the report suggests that land should be zoned either as development land, where there is a presumption in favour of new development, or non-development land, where there is not a presumption and minor development is only possible in more restricted circumstances. Within this new zonal system, the report provides that:
    • zones should in general not refer to what specific uses are permitted on individual plots of land within private ownership. Subject to restrictions, land/buildings within urban areas would be allowed to change use without requiring ‘the permission of the state’; and
    • zonal designations should depend on ‘metrics that determine whether land has good access potential’, whether new development would ‘cause environmental disturbance’, and the potential for ‘an existing building or development to expand’.
    • According to the report ‘local plans should set a limited and simple set of development control rules detailing what development is not acceptable in development zones and a similar set of rules detailing what development is acceptable in non-development zones’ (any of this starting to sound familiar…?);
  • Giving councillors ‘no say over deciding applications for new developments’ – perhaps the most controversial element of the report relates to the involvement of local politicians in the planning process. According to the report, local plans should be ‘controlled by local authorities’, however goes on to state that this ‘should be the only stage in the planning system when local politicians have a say’. Local politicians ‘should have no say over deciding applications for new developments – this should be a purely administrative exercise checking the proposal conforms to local rules’.

Comment

The current administration would not be the first new government to propose an overhaul to the planning process however the report is heavy on theory and light on application. Some of the proposals relating to the local plan process mirror the evidence-based system we currently work within and, if developed, would not represent the sea-change the authors suggest. The report seems fixated on the advent of the NPPF and the streamlining of volumes of planning guidance that was undertaken during that exercise. According to Policy Exchange, this approach should be followed through in the examination and adoption of local plans.

The report also argues against proposals to introduce land capture provisions applicable where a landowner has secured planning permission for a new development. This would have more credence were the report not to suggest in the alternative that the same result would be achieved via a ‘less risky and less costly’ planning process. Apparently this would lead to landowners disposing of their land for ‘lower threshold value[s]’ and to developers directing ‘more value towards better and more beautiful development.

Taking decisions away from local politicians is also nothing new as the Planning Inspectorate would attest. Adoption of the proposals in the report would, however, run contrary to the localism agenda. In recent weeks, Robert Jenrick (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) has allowed appeals for several significant residential developments in the capital, even in some instances awarding costs against the local planning authorities involved. Perhaps the solution to the housing crisis lies not within the solutions proposed in the report but with an administration that is willing to take locally unpopular decisions more regularly readily? With a decision on HS2 looming we should watch this space.