Ian Tant says more detail is needed on the proposed reforms to the planning system launched today

Ian Tant

The Secretary of State’s statement is welcomed, containing a number of important measures that should help to stimulate house building and growth. However, there is a notable lack of detail in many aspects and the efficacy of the measures will rely on early progress in adding that detail.

Reducing planning delays

It’s really good to see the government put into writing the reality that along with localism – putting power in the hands of communities – comes responsibility to meet the needs for development and growth. Too many communities and local planning authorities are still struglling to come to terms with this.

We welcome the indication that the government will step in where local planning authorities are failing to perform.  But there are important details to iron out: what will constitute a failing authority and how long will it take before intervention is made?

If the remedy is to seek determination by the Planning Inspectorate, is this really anything more than the longstanding right to appeal against the non-determination of planning applications, reinforced with widened powers to seek awards of costs?

And can the Planning Inspectorate – which has scaled back in the past two years – cope with the responsibility for taking on the determination of planning applications, while speeding up appeals for major economic and housing proposals?

The review of the planning regime for Major Infrastructure is welcome – particularly the proposal to extend the benefits of it to other forms of development which are of national importance, which we suggest should include major housing developments, including new settlements and new market towns. In the meantime, the offer of the Secretary of State to use call-in powers to take direct responsibility for determining such applications will be a helpful step.

Reducing the cumulative burden of red tape

We welcome the moves to widen the opportunities to renegotiate S106 Agreements which predated April 2010 and which genuinely put obstacles in the way of delivery. Land values and sales rates have fallen, infrastructure costs haven’t stood still but we still have schemes burdened with affordable housing requirements of 40% of the stock and more, with little or no grant aid available.

The government new legislation, to allow appeals in respect of developments made unviable because of the number of affordable homes, is therefore particularly welcome. It continues however to require viability assessment to demonstrate the case and this remains a problem for landowners, where the key variable is the resulting land price: at what point is the landowner right to think the remaining value is too low?  No-one has yet answered that conundrum satisfactorily and it’s something on which the Government could and should give specific guidance.

Alongside this, it’s good to see government offering to get involved in reviewing the complex array of local and national standards. The “fundamental and urgent review” should help considerably – but we’ll need to wait until next spring for the outcome.

There is of course no real change with regard to Green Belt, despite all the focus and furore in the national press. The Statement does no more than remind local authorities of their ability under the National Planning Policy Framework to adjust Green Belt boundaries for the benefit and health of local communities and the economy. Green Belt isn’t law – it’s a policy and one that should be adjusted intelligently to keep our towns and cities vibrant and growing. This is, however, distinctly different from prior to the General Election in 2010 when Ministers were suggesting that the Green Belt should not be touched in any circumstances.

Accelerating large housing schemes

The proposal to replicate the DCLG’s beneficial involvement in unlocking Eastern Quarry in partnership with local authorities, scheme promoters and communities in order to speed up the delivery of major housing sites is particularly welcome. It is good to see the recognition that the government has a role to play in speeding housing delivery and that it can’t always be left to the local level.

We need to know quickly which authorities and schemes these will be and to start to see effective involvement by the Department.  

Getting surplus public sector land back into use

This is a further attempt to accelerate the release of surplus public land.  The fact that the review is being chaired by Tony Pidgley, Chairman of the Berkeley Group, should lead to some real measures to bring land forward.  We welcome the proposal for a single ‘shop window’ for all surplus public sector land.  However, there is a reason why such land takes so long to come forward and frequently it’s because of the complexities of securing a viable planning permission or allocation.  This is particularly for the large land holdings, like former military sites which can be in remote or poorly serviced locations.  Redevelopment, with intensification of traffic and infrastructure demands, can be deeply unpopular at the local level.

We will await to see how these announcements are translated into new legislation, intervention and powers.

Ian Tant is senior partner at planning consultant Barton Willmore