After the major changes proposed in the Planning for the Future White Paper, this week’s Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill offered the prospect of a more considered, streamlined approach to reforming the planning system.  

So much of what is being put forward is subject to secondary legislation, so there is some way to go before we will really understand what this means but a few points already stand out.

Underpinning everything is an interesting shift in the balance of power when it comes to planning decisions. Local focus on visual appearance remains front and centre with requirements for every authority to have a design code, the opportunity for neighbourhoods to set their own codes and a new neighbourhood plan process based around priorities. At the same time, centralisation of development management policies, more devolution and the creation of CCAs, and more SoS involvement moves delivery decisions to a more strategic level that should streamline decision-making.

Most important is the proposed changes in the “planning balance” (38 (6)), with the explicit reference to national policy in the form of new “national development management policy” and for these to take precedence where there is a conflict and raising the bar on “material considerations” to have to “strongly indicate otherwise”. The application and interpretation of 38(6) has been at the heart of decision-making and a hunting ground for legal challenges since its introduction. It is inevitable that these changes will lead to another steep learning curve.

The potential juxtaposition of a simplified Environmental Assessment regime and the assurance that its proposed replacement, “Environmental Outcome Report”, will ensure the same level of environmental protection. While most of us in the planning sector would agree that the scale of EIA’s has become overblown and would welcome a more focussed approach in principle, protecting and enhancing the environment must remain at the centre of the planning process. More than just the form that these documents take, it is also about ensuring that the local planning authorities and statutory consultees such as the Environment Agency, Natural England, Historic England and others have the resources to input into the decision-making process in a timely manner; arguably they are the main bottleneck in decision-making for major schemes currently.

There has been much mooted about S106 being replaced by a new Infrastructure Levy. We commented in relation to the Planning White Paper that the proposed levy could not cover direct mitigations arising from developments, so it was good to see this argument accepted and S106 remaining. It would seem that we are now looking at a hybrid approach involving a new levy with its basis on Gross Development Value blended with S106-lite but much more clarity is needed here for a workable system.

Finally – but crucially – resourcing remains a key issue across the decision-making matrix. Statutory consultees are not only faced with their own resource issues but lack joined up thinking on (at least) the timescales for the delivery of new housing. Moreover, local authority planning departments, PINS and others need more funding if we are to achieve meaningful progress on the measures set out this week.