Speculation that ministers have dropped plans to introduce ‘zonal’ system and binding housing targets

Countryside campaigners have welcomed reports that the government is to abandon major elements of its proposed planning reform package.

The Times on Saturday reported that the two most controversial parts of the reform package – plans for mandatory local housing targets set by central government, and the introduction of a ‘zonal’ system under which all land is classified for growth, renewal, or protection – are to be dropped.

The paper, without citing sources, said this meant the biggest shake-up of planning laws for 70 years is “set to be abandoned”, with a “a more limited set of changes” instead introduced.

Housing within a greenfield area from above

Source: Shutterstock

When announced last summer, Boris Johnson said the reforms would bring in a ‘whole new planning system’

Last week housing secretary Robert Jenrick told a housing conference that the government’s response to its consultation on the measures would be announced “shortly”.

Under the original proposals, contained in last year’s Planning for Future white paper, areas zoned by councils for “growth” would be granted outline planning permission, with planning authorities given just 30 months to prepare stripped back local plans.

The government also said that the standard method formula which is currently used to determine local housing need – already dubbed a mutant algorithm by critics prior to it being amended in the face of a backbench Tory rebellion last autumn – would be further reformed, to become a mandatory housing target for every local authority. Currently councils just have to use the figure to prepare their local plans but can depart from it if they can justify this with local evidence.

Reacting to the reports, Tom Fyans, deputy chief executive of countryside charity CPRE, said it appeared that the most damaging parts of the reforms “have been rightly binned”, and that the change of track was “a victory for common sense” and for campaigners who “just wanted a proper say on the needs of their communities and how their area should be developed”.

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The housing ministry has refused to comment on the story, but the summary of the reforms given by Jenrick in two set piece speeches last week did not include references to either the zonal system – which had been the heart of the original package – or the mandatory housing target.

A senior advisor to the government on planning reform, Nicholas Boys Smith, said in response to the story that “I’m not sure this article is actually saying that much that justifies the headline”.

He said in a tweet that “A lot of excellent important changes have already happened in the new #NPPF and #NMDC and we’ll have to wait & see on #PlanningBill”.

The news follows intense speculation over the future of the reform package following the Conservative Party’s shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, which was largely seen as in part caused by disquiet over the reforms.

Jenrick has already admitted that one part of the package – a new national Infrastructure Levy – will be able to be set locally, and told council leaders in July that “I don’t think we need to rip up the planning system and start again”.

When the reforms were launched last summer, Boris Johnson described the planning system as “broken”, adding his aim was about “levelling the foundations and building, from the ground up, a whole new planning system”.

The news was met with dismay by some campaigning for planning reform. Jamie Sullivan, director at planning consultant Iceni, said on Twitter: “So they will spend their political capital on a tax rise which breaks a manifesto promise, but they have bottled it on planning reform? I just can’t ever see the system changing in a meaningful way.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We will not comment on speculation. Our response to the consultation will be released in due course.”