Proposed planning changes to promote smaller sites could help deliver more homes


The new year is just a few weeks old and the high level of political interest in planning, housing and planning reform shows no sign of slacking off. January began with new regulations (or more fairly a reduction in regulation) from the government and a challenge to the big builders (and banks and all other large enterprises, it seems) from Labour.

The Communities Department kicked off at the end of 2013 with its Seventh Statement of New Regulation, setting out the changes that it intends to introduce between now and June. Prime among the planned changes are a new legislative provision to treat discharge of planning condition applications as approved unless they are dealt with in time and, secondly, to reduce requirements for Environmental Impact Assessment. 

Both are sensible: with the growth in the number of planning conditions attached to permissions, there is a growing workload for applicants and local authorities in dealing with the applications to deal with the conditions. “Approved unless otherwise stated” is a logical approach – provided it doesn’t lead to councils refusing submitted material just to keep control.    

There’s a certain irony in the Labour party seeking to encourage small builders. After all, it was their push for volume that led to present major housebuilders

Environmental Impact Assessment is an important process for major developments that have significant environmental effects. However, as the years have gone by, the number of EIAs being required by local authorities has steadily increased, leading to even relatively modest proposals having to be accompanied by an Environmental Statement (although the request for an EIA can be challenged on quick-fire appeal to the Secretary of State, often with a more sensible outcome for applicants).

Environmental Statements are frequently long documents, written in constrained structures and often in stilted language. It’s far better for local authorities to request targeted reports which specifically address the key issues for a scheme. With less unnecessary information to read and absorb, these are likely to be far more practical documents for Planners and consultees alike.

There’s a certain irony in the Labour party seeking to encourage small builders. After all, it was the push for volume production in their last term of office that led to the mergers and acquisitions that forged our present major housebuilders. But it’s true that we need both large and small builders and a variety in site sizes that allows all to compete for a share of the market.

This doesn’t mean an end to large scale housing schemes – but it has to be recognised that in many cases these take time to deliver. In the meantime, the smaller sites which can be brought forward more quickly have a role to play in land supply and housing delivery. Appropriate guidance to local authorities is the right answer – rather than legislation or an “attack” on the majors.

And talking of guidance, keep an eye out for the new National Planning Practice Guidance, due around the end of January. This is the new on-line service that was trialled last summer, replacing the existing statements, guidance and circulars. Hopefully, the final version will be suitably indexed (an omission from the 2013 Beta version) but, subject to this, it should a really useful tool for all involved in planning, adding suitable detail behind the National Planning Policy Framework.

Ian Tant is a senior partner at Barton Willmore