A radical re-write of the planning process?

The Planning for the Future whitepaper recently released by the government has heralded as the most radical change to planning law since the Second World War, and there is no doubt that the existing system needs change.

The average planning approval period for residential schemes containing between 500 – 1999 units is 4 years. For 2000+ units this goes up to 8.6 years.

Furthermore, according to the whitepaper, rejected decisions are often overturned. Of the planning applications determined at appeal, 36% of decisions relating to major applications and 30% of decisions relating to minor applications are overturned.

The fact that roughly a third of all planning applications that go to appeal end up being overturned and approved is in itself evidence that the planning system can be confusing, so it is right that aspects of it need to be reformed.

Two of the key changes suggest in the White Paper are the introduction of a new zoning system for the identification of land, and the use of technology to streamline the planning system and improve community engagement channels.

The new zoning system will require local authorities to divide their land into three categories: Growth, Renewal and Protected.

Growth areas will be “suitable for substantial development” and the term ‘substantial development’ will be implemented into policy to avoid future confusion. Growth areas appear to be all encompassing, including new builds, extensions to current buildings, redevelopment of unused land, as well as areas that present “opportunities to create a cluster of growth focused businesses.”

Growth areas will see outline approval for development automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Plan. The government also proposes allowing sub-areas within Growth areas, created specifically for self- and custom-build homes, and community-led housing developments.

Renewal areas will be “suitable for development” and would cover existing built areas where smaller scale development is appropriate. Renewal areas will see “gentle” densification of residential areas and development in town centres, as well as the potential for development in rural areas that don’t fall into the other two categories. The whitepaper states this could mean “small sites within or on the edge of villages”.

Protected areas are fairly self-explanatory, including areas such as green belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), conservation areas, local wildlife sites, areas of significant flood risk and important areas of green space.

The whitepaper also states that it is time for the planning system to move towards a public, open data approach that makes planning services more efficient, inclusive and consistent. Moving from document to data will allow developers to make more informed decisions about what to build, where to build it and make it easier for the local community to get involved.

The whitepaper proposes setting up a series of pilots to work with local authorities and the PropTech sector to develop solutions to support plan-making activities and make community involvement more accessible and engaging. The government believes this will open up new ways for people to feed their views into the system, including through social networks and mobile phones. They hope the “reforms will democratise the planning process by putting a new emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage.

”This all sounds like a long overdue revision to a planning process which can be slow, cumbersome and disengaged from local community and local need.It should help to speed up the provision of new homes, but is unlikely, on its own, to get us to the point where we are building the 300,000 homes per year that is the Government target.