Planning for the Future

Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick publishes proposals for major reforms aimed at streamlining and modernising the planning system.

Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ battle speech made a clear promise - the ‘most radical reform to our planning system since the Second World War’, making it easier to build better homes where people want to live.

Published on 6th August, the 'Planning for the Future' paper launches proposals to streamline and modernise the planning system, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed.

The central tenant of the proposed changes is the creation of a ‘zoning’ system, with the aim of streamlining the planning system. Through this system, local plans will divide land into one of three categories:

  • Growth areas - suitable for sustainable development, and where outline approval for developments would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the plan.
  • Renewal areas - suitable for some development such as gentle densification, with there being a statutory presumption in favour of development specified as being suitable in these areas.
  • Protected areas - where development is restricted, this including areas such as Green Belts, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas.

In growth areas, detailed planning permission can be secured through a reformed reserved matters process or a Local Development Order prepared by the Local Planning Authority. In renewal areas, consent will be granted for pre-specified development through a new permission route which grants automatic consent if the scheme meets design and other prior approval matters; for other development through a faster application process where the development will be determined in the context of the Local Plan description or through a Local or Neighbourhood Development Order.

In protection areas meanwhile, any development proposals would come forward as they do now through planning applications. It will still be possible to make a planning application for a development which is different to that in the plan in Growth and Renewal areas, but this is expected to be the exception rather than the rule.

To ensure that design principles are upheld throughout the development process, planning applications that are based on pre-approved design codes would be given an automatic green light.

Increased digitisation

There is also the aim to streamline the process through increased digitisation, standardising applications and ensuring there are clear incentives for Local Planning Authorities to determine applications in time (with this potentially including automatic refunds of planning fees or deeming certain applications to have planning permission if they exceed the deadline for determination).

An increased role in public engagement is proposed, with this tying into the increased digitisation of the planning system. The aim of this is to ensure that the general public can understand the nature of planning proposals and to make it easier to use phones and social media as part of the planning system.

Removal of Section 106 Agreements

The nature of planning obligations will also be subject to change. It is proposed that the current system of planning obligations under the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 are consolidated under a reformed Infrastructure Levy, this being set at a national level and being used to deliver affordable housing. It is also proposed that more freedom is given to the Local Planning Authority in how the levy is spent.

A welcome move?

Few will deny that the planning system is an antiquated dinosaur, which needs to be more agile, more flexible and better resourced, in order to deliver the housing supply so desperately needed. Any move in that direction is welcomed, particularly in relation to the increased digitisation of the system and the associated benefits of speed, flexibility and increased public engagement.

Whether the proposals actually deliver on the objective of boosting housing supply is yet to be seen, however, an emphasis on quantity over quality is a big risk and whilst the planning system needs to support development and the delivery of homes, it must also ensure that homes are built that people want to live in and in places they want to live – we must not build the slums of the future.

Radical reform or more of the same?

Zonal planning is nothing new – the existing Local Plan system already allocates (zones) land for different types of development - and in that regard the new proposals are not a substantial departure from the existing system. The focus on design and sustainability is also not particularly radical in its approach.

What is radical, however, is the removal of controls in relation to certain ‘zones’ – deregulation of the system and automatic consent for certain types of development. The planning system exists to ‘control the use of land in the public interest’. The effects are yet to be seen, but this obvious move from localism to nationalism and leaving decisions in the hands of the free market, is ringing alarm bells for many.

Whilst the plans to ‘cut red tape’ are a definite crowd-pleaser, it remains to be seen whether the changes will do this or simply serve to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex and multi-layered system, built up over 70 years of ‘reform’.

There are also fears that the proposed changes to the planning obligations system could result in a decline in affordable housing. The current system of Section 106 payments which are often a condition of permission being granted - last year delivered almost 28,000 affordable homes, about half of the total. With the abolition of this system, there is no guarantee what level of affordable housing will be prioritised and delivered under a national levy system.

A challenge with such radical reform is ensuring it is introduced in a way that minimises the risk of consequent delays in decision-making; both on major proposals and on the progress of emerging local plans.  In addition, these measures need to be supported by the necessary resources; both in terms of planning professionals deployed at local authority level and the necessary supporting investment in technology.

In announcing these reforms, Jenrick has ‘lorded’ the ability for local people to control where development goes and how it is designed. This is a real concern. The settled community already have these powers via neighbourhood planning.  A system when introduced was to significantly boost housing supply and allow communities to decide where development is best located in their neighbourhood. In reality - communities have decided that development is best located in someone else’s neighbourhood!  Experience demonstrates that communities will resist change.  It is therefore essential that growth is not stifled and imaginative design solutions are permitted to thrive.  

David Jones is MD/Head of Planning at Evans Jones Ltd. If you would like any further information on the proposed planning reforms and how this might affect your development proposals, contact David on 0800 0014090 or