The Government’s proposals for Planning Reform – Temple Group’s Preliminary Response
This week the UK Government released its much-anticipated Planning White Paper, Planning for the Future. It covers a package of proposals for reform of the planning system in England, covering plan-making and development management, amongst other wide-reaching measures. Whilst this consultation is published in response and as part of the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has been vocal for some time about its desire to simplify the planning and environmental assessment system seeing an opportunity to refresh the regime in the wake of Brexit. A key aim of this is to greatly increase the rate of house building. In his forward, the Prime Minister proposes, ‘Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’ and the proposals in the White Paper suggest just that.
Many of us would agree that the planning and associated environmental assessment system is far from perfect. It has evolved through a process of constant tweaking of ideas, politics through successive Governments, and moving from a top-down regional approach to localism and now we are seeing signs of going full circle as authorities look to create joint Local Plans and sub-regional strategies. It is also fair to say that the planning system can cause delays although it is unfair to point blame solely at that when issues such as the housing market, land banking by developers, politics, some poor quality proposals and complex local issues are far more significant. Indeed, the planning and environmental community has worked hard to make the process more proportionate and effective and we would caution against a reform that loses the benefits of this and waters down important planning and environmental protection principles that have helped protect our natural heritage and build sustainable communities.
The White Paper is very clear that it seeks to, ‘reduce red tape but not standards’. There is a strong message throughout maintaining environmental protection and sustainable development. At this stage, however, there is very little detail about how these potentially competing aims can be reconciled.
Some preliminary observations are as follows:
Proposals 1-3 suggest simpler, more standardised Local Plans with more policy direction from the national level and a single statutory sustainable development test. This would replace the Sustainability Appraisal (SA) system with something simpler. Could this be a step back to how early SAs and SEAs were undertaken 10-15 years ago or even going further back to something akin to the Environmental Appraisal of plans level of detail? At this stage, there is no detail as to what that could entail other than it would still need to satisfy the requirements of UK and international law and treaties. This latter point is interesting – the UK is a signatory to the Espoo Convention, Rio Declaration and the Aarhus Convention amongst others and we would still need to meet our international commitments made in the UN where systems such as EIA have their roots.
It is also suggested that land in Local Plans could be zoned into areas for growth, renewal and protection. Whilst there could be some benefits of this, its important not to overlook the value of community involvement and clear and quality design and infrastructure needs and how they will be considered in the process. The suggestion of delivering a Local Plan in 30 months will also pose significant challenges.
Proposal 16 suggests a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities, that speeds up the process while protecting and enhancing the most valuable and important habitats and species in England. Within this, suggestions are made with regard to reform of the SA/SEA/EIA regimes, including, ‘clear timescales’ and a greater emphasis on using established national and local-level databases of baseline data to help reduce the need for site surveys. It also makes reference to any new system taking advantage of opportunities for enhancement and mitigation but in a simpler to understand way and to avoid any perceived duplication, although there is no further clarity as to what this means.
By placing greater emphasis on the most valuable habitats and species we must not forget about the valuable role of other species as part of an ecosystem approach.
There is a strong emphasis on efficiencies through digitisation which mirrors current trends so applying regulatory requirements for increased use of digital measures could well support further innovation in this field. This is in line with Temple’s involvement in Digital EIA through the work we have undertaken with the Connected Places Catapult https://www.templegroup.co.uk/digitising-the-environmental-impact-assessment-eia-process/.
This consultation is for England only – how will other devolved administrations approach this and will this create cross-border complications or an uneven playing field for developers? Similarly, the white paper is very housing focussed – is the intention to apply such reforms to all planning and consenting sectors? Another question would be what effect will this reform have on the number of housing applications in the short-term – will developers and Local Authorities put on the brakes until more information is available?
In line with comments from the Environment Secretary last month the White Paper suggests there will be further consultation on this issue in the autumn so it is not clear yet whether this is the main consultation on the environmental assessment regime (as it applies to planning) or whether that will instead be in the autumn. Clarity would be useful.
On the face of it, the proposals in the White Paper could sound alarming, but change usually does. There are opportunities here to positively improve the planning system and sometimes radical thought is needed to instigate this. Nevertheless, collectively as a community we also need to be strong on what works well and what should be retained. In Temple’s consultation response we intend to set out our views on how an effective and sustainable planning regime could look in the future and would welcome the input of partners to this.
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