Yesterday’s planning White Paper kicks off a consultation period on the Government’s once in a generation planning reforms, designed to deliver new development via a “simpler, faster and more predictable system”. 

Who recalls before seeing a White Paper with a Prime Ministerial foreword and so many questions to be answered? Should we be surprised given the radical and comprehensive end-to-end nature of the proposed changes and the dramatic context and potential economic fallout set by Covid-19 (and let’s not forget Brexit)?

There’s a lot here for the industry to welcome long-term: a stripped back Local Plan process with more focus on strategic decisions, clearer designations and a simpler, quicker planning application process. To do this and ensure design quality, sustainability and other characteristics that create successful places is an ambition we should all share – but it is also a huge challenge.

How well this vision works in practice will come down to how deftly its principles can be translated into legislation, put into practice and then enforced. 

Local authorities are going to need more empowerment and resourcing to create and deliver plans that are right for their area within the Government’s 30-month timeframe and adopting the three zoning categories – Growth, Renewal and Protected. 

How many will have the appetite to maximise the potential in Growth zones and what skillsets will they need to support the process – particularly where density and scale will be key? At the same time statutory consultees such as Environment Agency and Natural England will need to transform the way they operate with appropriate resourcing and accountability to support them – especially to justify new charging mechanisms. 

Getting workable structures in place around developer contributions, public services and infrastructure, especially the replacements for S106 and CIL, is also going to be key. The certainty of standard, nationally-set charges emerging from CIL needs to be blended with bespoke local measures usually dealt with through the S106 process and to reflect divergent land values. Levelling up will be a challenge.  

Local engagement, already moving to more digital channels as a result of lockdown, will also transform – harnessing technology to reach out at an earlier stage and to a broader base.  

Finally – a key word from the White Paper: beauty. A hugely important concept but one that brings with it subjectivity, which shouldn’t derail these other reforms. Great architecture and great design is about so much more. 

Whatever the final form the new legislation takes, it is clear that fundamental change is on the horizon. 

First, though, the issue of what to do during the transitional period should come further into the spotlight. There will be challenging times ahead as this new system, for all its likely benefits, comes into place and much of that will come down to resourcing and financial structures. This cannot be set up overnight and it is essential that authorities are provided clear guidance so current activity doesn’t stall. For instance, should authorities progressing current Local Plans pause or crack on?

More than ever, larger schemes especially will need bespoke planning strategies, with engagement in the Local Plan process becoming more important. 

The direction of travel is clear and those bringing forward new development should accelerate as far as practical rather than wait for the new shake-up to take effect.