In August 2020 the Government published a White Paper called ‘Planning for the Future’ which set out a series of proposals for the plan making system to speed it up, make ‘beauty’ fundamental to the role of planning and to encourage better use of modern technologies by Local Planning Authorities. Part 3 (along with Schedules 6 and 7) of the ‘Levelling up and Regeneration Bill’ is broadly the outcome of this White Paper and the subsequent consultation that took place.
The Bill stops short at the some of the more fundamental measures set out within the White Paper, for example, the mooted move towards a ‘zonal’ based planning system has not been advanced, but nonetheless the Bill will result in significant changes to the plan making system.
The Bill broadly seeks to bring about a ‘centralisation’ of the planning system, giving more primacy to national planning policies and, in doing so, seeks to allow local authorities to concentrate on planning for their development needs. It also includes measures to improve the collection and publication of planning data, along with measures to standardise the use of software by planning authorities.
Greater statutory weight is being afforded to the development plan by amending the provisions within the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which allow departures from the development plan, so that such departures can now only be justified where material considerations strongly
indicate otherwise. This is subject to existing provisions that, where there is an internal conflict between development plan documents, national development management policy has primacy.
The Bill requires every local authority to prepare one ‘local plan’, with the content of this to be specific to local matters, such as allocating land for development. Therefore ‘local plans’ should no longer contain development management policies, which instead will be set by the Secretary of State, who will publish a document or document(s) containing ‘National Development Management Policies’ (NDMPs) which will be applicable to all applications within England and against which all ‘local plans’ should be in accordance with.
It also requires every local authority to adopt a ‘Design Code’, whether as part of their Local Plan or as a supplementary plan (which are discussed further below). These should be at a district wide scale and do not need to include every form of development, or every aspect of design. They will need to be subject to at least one round of public consultation and will be subject to a public examination. Once adopted they will form part of the development plan and, therefore, will have significantly more statutory weight then design guidance published as Supplementary Planning Documents.
The Bill gives a voluntary power to local authorities to prepare a ‘supplementary plan’, where policies for a specific site need to be prepared quickly, or to set out design codes for a specific site, or whole area. There are limits on the scope of supplementary plans so that they do not subvert the role of the local plan as the primary development plan document (in particular they should refer to specific sites or site(s) in close geographic proximity).
Spatial Development Strategy
The Bill also gives a voluntary power for at least two local authorities to prepare a ‘Spatial Development Strategy’ (SDS). The SDS must include a statement of policies which are of strategic importance in that area and designed to achieve objectives that relate to its particular circumstances. This can include the distribution of housing or infrastructure and, in theory, will be a useful tool where a new development or infrastructure crosses or adjoins local authority areas.
Neighbourhood Priorities Statement
At a local level, the Bill introduces a simpler and more accessible way for neighbourhood groups to influence development in their area by allowing them to adopt a ‘Neighbourhood Priorities Statement’ (NPS). NPSs are being introduced to overcome the uneven take-up of Neighbourhood Plans and is targeted at ‘urban and deprived’ areas which face additional barriers to progressing a Neighbourhood Plan. Local authorities must have regard to NPSs when producing a Local Plan.
Local plan timetable
One of the major issues that the Government is seeking to rectify through the Bill is the length of time it takes for local authorities to adopt plan with many authorities, (particularly Green Belt authorities), relying on plans that are now decades old. It also seeks to streamline the local examination process.
Therefore, the Bill introduces a requirement for local authorities to maintain a ‘local plan timetable’ which should specify the intention of preparing a ‘local plan’, what issues it will cover and the timetable for its preparation. Supporting documentation to the Bill indicates that this timetable should be no longer than 30 months. Should the authority not produce a ‘local plan timetable’, the Secretary of State has been given powers to prepare one for them and direct the Authority to put that timetable into effect. Once the local plan timetable has effect, the local planning authority must comply with it.
In addition to this measure, the Bill seeks to simplify the local examination process. There will now be a ‘gateway check’ to ensure that the local plan meets all the prescribed requirements before it is formally submitted to the Secretary of State. A new power will also be created to allow the Inspector to pause the examination at any stage in order that the local authority can undertake remedial work to make the plan sound (as opposed to leaving these matters to be addressed at the end of the examination).
It is set out within a companion document to the Bill ‘Levelling Up and Regeneration: Further Information’ that to further incentivise production of a local plan, local authorities will no longer have to demonstrate that they have a rolling five year supply of housing land where their plan is up to date (i.e. it has been adopted within the past five years). Therefore, so long as their plan is up to date, local authorities will be able to resist development not in accordance with the development plan (for example, speculative housing developments) irrespective of their housing land supply position.
Even without some of the fundamental changes proposed by the White Paper, the Bill includes a number of measures which will drastically change the plan making system. In some ways it seeks to give more authority to local plans but in others it will result in a centralisation of the planning system. In theory, this should allow local authorities to focus on the more difficult task of planning areas for development and helping to speed up the plan making process. Time will only tell whether this will be borne out in reality, or whether greater focus on these issues will only lead to greater conflict.
Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: planning proposals
Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: planning proposals: part 2
Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill - Environmental impacts
Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill; New power to grant substantially similar planning permission