Perhaps the most fundamental aspect is the shift towards a zoning-style system. This would require local planning authorities (LPAs) to identify land in their Local Plan as falling under one of three categories: Growth, Renewal or Protected:
- Growth areas suitable for substantial development. Outline approval for development would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Local Plan. In these areas, development would automatically receive outline planning permission for the principle of development (‘permission in principle’). New settlements, urban extensions, and former industrial/urban regeneration sites would be included in this category (areas of flood risk are specifically excluded). The proposals also mention growth clusters around universities.
- Renewal areas suitable for some development, such as ‘gentle densification’. This could include infill of residential areas, development in towns and small sites on the edge of villages which are not protected. There would be a statutory presumption in favour of development for the uses specified as being suitable in each area. There would be automatic consent for schemes which meet design and other prior approval requirements.
- Protected areas where development would be restricted, for example green belts and conservations areas, and where an application for express planning permission would still be required for new development.
For exceptionally large sites such as new towns, the Government also wants to explore a Development Consent Order under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime.
In growth and renewal areas, the Local Plan would set out suitable development uses and limitations on height and/or density. In these areas it would still be possible for a proposal which is different to the plan to come forward (if, for example, local circumstances had changed suddenly, or an unanticipated opportunity arose), but this would require a specific planning application.
The White Paper also suggests a potential alternative approach of combining growth and renewal areas into one category, as well as a broader alternative of limiting automatic permission in principle to land identified for substantial development, with other areas of land determined by the local planning authority and subject to the existing development management process.
Our view on zoning
Under current arrangements, Local Plans already allocate sites for specific uses, in a not dissimilar way to the first two of the three proposed categories. However, the automatic granting of planning permission and ‘permission in principle’ under the proposed system may mean that the ability of local authorities to control development will be much more limited than currently.
Overall, this broad-brush approach to growth, renewal and protected areas makes sense. Uncertainty holds back businesses across sectors, and the development industry is no exception. Creating greater certainty as regards to what will constitute acceptable forms of development looks to be a positive step.
However, the shift away from a case-by-case to a rules-based approach, governed by nationally-set criteria, risks creating a more centralised system that is less accountable at a local level (something which only a few years ago the Government was very keen to move away from). Reducing the democratic process will be challenged if this is seen as a ‘gravy train’ for developers and landowners. Of course, this is an over-simplification as it is a relationship that also involves the consumer, where choice and value for money are as important as quality.
There is also a question mark over how flexible the new system will be in allowing alternative uses if the allocated use does not come forward. This could potentially stifle development, especially in scenarios where a developer wants to construct an unspecified use.
In cities such as London, Cambridge and Oxford large swathes of central urban areas fall within Conservation Areas and will therefore be more than likely fall within the protected category, meaning that new development will require an application for express planning permission, as is the case presently. Will a variety of sub-categories therefore be required in order to fit different area profiles?
We are also concerned that the proposal to grant outline planning permission automatically for sites through the plan-making process could be highly complicated. After all, this is where the parameters of the consent are set and where relevant site-specific conditional requirements and site-level (and time specific) planning obligations are established. Whilst theoretically possible to do at the plan making stage, it will require significant additional resource at local authority level. Alternatively, automatic granting of outline planning permission could get watered down to permission in principle being conveyed by plan allocation as per initiatives brought in by the 2016 Housing and Planning Act.
Big questions remain, such as; If a reformed reserved matters process for agreeing the issues which remain outstanding is to be introduced then how comprehensive will this be and will it, for example, include consideration of matters such as flood risk, drainage, ecology, noise, air quality, and contamination etc?
The suggested approach is not equivalent to zoning elsewhere in the world and does not mean the end for planning applications. Protected areas will still require a ‘normal’ planning applications and some form of reserved matters application will still be needed in growth and renewal areas where outline permission is assumed on allocated sites and if a developer wants to step outside of the allocation, an application could still be submitted.
Above all, however, it will really highlight the primacy of the Local Plan and make it the centre-stage of the process going forward.
Our view on the Green Belt
The proposals do not appear to suggest any changes to the current approach to Green Belt land, with the proposition to classify it within the protected areas, with no mention of a review, although this is equally not ruled out. If however the Government intends to make all Green Belt land sacrosanct, this could be a huge missed opportunity - after all, the UK is not blessed with a huge supply of brownfield land. Therefore, we think there is a case for greater flexibility to review Green Belt policy and make it easier for local authorities to make sustainable development choices, to release such land for growth and to allow the development of our urban centres in a more rounded way than is evident at present.
Indeed, it is unclear how housing needs are going to be met in areas with a strong economy and high affordable housing requirements without a release of land from the Green Belt, especially as Green Belt areas tend to be those where need is highest. There needs to be a commitment to review Green Belt boundaries in areas of higher need, especially if the duty to cooperate is being removed.
Many local authorities where growth has both a regional and national benefit have wrestled with the duty to cooperate and the ‘untouchable’ status afforded to Green Belt. This increases pressure on delivering high density sites on brownfield land. Surely it is time to consider a 2020 view to a 1940s policy?