Planning for the Future: “Wind of Change”

In August 2020, the Government published its much anticipated “Planning for the Future” white paper setting out its high level proposals for a complete overhaul of the UK planning system. Generally speaking, the purpose of a white paper is to provide a basis for consultation and discussion with various stakeholders following which the Government can hone its proposals with a view to publishing detailed legislation at a later date. The white paper offers much food for thought however the Government has already found itself facing fierce criticism, especially when it comes to the delivery of affordable housing (covered in more detail elsewhere in this publication), which many in the industry believe will be hampered by the proposals. This is at a time when delivery of this asset class is arguably needed the most and institutional investors’ appetite for affordable housing has never been greater. 

Why now?

Planning reform has been a long time in the coming. The Government has been busy tackling issues surrounding Brexit for much of the last few years but it has finally found the parliamentary time to address the planning system which it feels has not been looked at in great enough detail by successive governments for a considerable period of time. Planning system reform also plays a significant role in the Government’s broader proposals for rebalancing and enhancing the UK economy post Brexit.

What can we expect?
  • The Government thinks, at least in part, that the current planning system is stifling the delivery of development in the UK. The issue of housing delivery has been a political hot potato for a number of years. Successive governments have promised the electorate that they will deliver significant numbers of houses (which at current prices remain unaffordable for most) but they have failed to do so. Many of the proposals look to address this issue in earnest.
  • Whilst the proposed reforms, in part, look principally to address the delivery of housing, they are also intended to drive forward and unlock development in all areas (not just in housing) including commercial real estate and infrastructure.
  • It is important to note that the Government is not proposing a wholesale shift to a zonal planning system as previously thought. Rather, the Government is proposing a ‘hybrid’ system which incorporates elements of ‘zoning’ but couched within the existing planning system. The new system will feel familiar but progressive.
  • The paper places a great deal of emphasis on the role of detailed design codes, which are intended to be set locally, to drive up design standards. This is coupled with a new fast-track system for ‘beautiful’ schemes. Planning applications for high quality development that comply with local design codes will be 'automatically' permitted. Great for securing planning permission sooner, but probably at a higher cost.
The proof will be in the pudding

The consultation period for responses to the proposals set out in the white paper closed on 29 October 2020. We can certainly expect more detailed proposals to emerge once the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has digested the responses it has received. There's certainly a lot for everyone to get their teeth into and it will be interesting to see how the public and private sector has responded given their competing interests. It is worth remembering that the Government’s stated aim is to “..streamline and modernise the planning process, 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.” These are bold aims indeed. Only time will tell whether or not the final product lives up to the Government’s great expectations.

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