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Changes to the planning system in England: What to expect?

Published: 26/08/2020

Earlier in August 2020 the UK government laid out proposals to reform the planning system in England. The proposed changes aim to streamline and modernise the planning process; improve design and sustainability outcomes; deliver infrastructure more efficiently; ensure developers play their part through contributions; and that land is available where it is needed.
A brief summary of the proposed changes to the planning system is as follows:
Local Plans and Zoning
The White Paper emphasises the statutory obligation for every area to have an up-to-date Local Plan in place. Sanctions will be introduced for the local authorities who fail to have a plan in place within 30 months from the legislation being brought in force, and local plans will have to be reviewed at least every 5 years. The proposals also aim to simplify the role the local plans to focus on categorising land into three groups:
  • Growth Areas suitable for substantial development will receive automatic outline approval for the principle of development. Within this context, planning decisions will focus on resolving outstanding issues. The full permission will be achieved through streamlined consent routes.
  • Renewal Areas will receive an automatic consent for types of development specified in the local plan, provided the development meets certain standards, including design. For other development types, the planning application would be determined according to the Local Plan’s description* of what sort of development the area or site is appropriate for, and with reference to the National Planning Policy Framework, a Local Development Order or a Neighbourhood Development Order.
  • In Protected Areas, such as the green belt, development will be restricted, with planning applications determined by local authorities with reference to policies set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.
The introduction of zoning will mean streamlining the opportunity for public consultation at the planning application stage. However, democratic accountability will be safeguarded at the plan-making stage as local plans will be designed in consultation with the local people.
Furthermore, Local Plans will no longer contain general development management policies, leaving them to be defined at a national level. Instead, the new local plan will contain a core set of site- and area-specific requirements for development, together with locally produced design codes.
* In both the Growth and Renewal areas, proposals which are different to the plan would require a specific planning application.
Developer Levies
Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy payments will be replaced with a new tax due on the final value of the scheme (once fully occupied); developers caught preventing occupation to avoid the charge will face sanctions. Revenues from the new developer levies will be spent on the delivery of discounted homes, new roads and upgraded playgrounds.
The new levy system will remove the opportunity to negotiate planning obligations, subsequently helping local authorities to avoid situations where large developers employ lawyers to get out of their side of the agreement. Moreover, the local authorities will be able to borrow against the levy to help forward fund projects.
Developers will qualify to receive a discount on the levy if they build affordable housing. This discount will equal the difference between the market price of flats and the price at which they were sold to the affordable housing provider. The Government also plans to extend the current exemption of small sites from having to make S106 payments towards affordable housing.

The new rules will place more importance on design. Design code for each area will be prepared as part of its local plan and will have to be in accordance with the National Design Guide, the yet to be published National Model Design Code and a new Manual for Streets.

Furthermore, the reformed planning system will introduce a "fast-track for beauty", granting automatic permits for "proposals for high-quality developments where they reflect local character and preferences".
The local plans will be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, while unnecessary requirements and assessments that cause delay and challenge in the current system will be abolished. This would mean updating requirements for assessments, abolishing the Duty to Cooperate  and replacing the existing tests of soundness.
It is expected that from 2025 new homes will produce 75-80% lower CO2 emissions compared to the current levels. These homes will be ‘zero carbon ready’, and, over time, as the electricity grid decarbonises these homes will have the ability to become fully zero carbon homes, without the need for further costly retrofitting work.
If the paper passes the legislation, it will mark a dramatic shift in the fundamentals of the English planning system. The consultation will last for 12 weeks from 6th August 2020.