Timescale and resource implications for the White Paper proposals

13 Aug 2020

Planning and Environment

By Michael Bedford QC

Long term changes

The sweeping reforms to the settled landscape of plan-making and development management and the new system of a national infrastructure levy (‘NIL’?) will require primary legislation (as well as secondary legislation and new policy guidance). The White Paper consultation runs to 29 October 2020. If legislation is to follow, there is so far no timetable for that, but it would be reasonable to expect such major reforms on such important matters to face close scrutiny in both Houses. Enactment by Q4 2021 may be possible, if challenging. The Government seemingly expects its new ‘zoning-style’ local plans to be in place by the end of the current Parliament (which has to be by December 2024), with the Government allowing 30 months for such plans to be prepared/adopted (para 6.3 of the White Paper).

This implies that the Government intends its new legislative framework to be in place and implemented (with all supporting regulations and guidance) by no later than Q3 2022. However, that would mean that the new ‘zoning’ plans would be undergoing their most intense public scrutiny and independent examination in the run-up to the 2024 General Election campaign. Given the contentious nature of such ‘zoning’ in many areas (rural areas ‘zoned’ for growth, mature suburbs ‘zoned’ for ‘gentle’ renewal, or areas of strong housing demand ‘zoned’ for protection or indeed not ‘zoned’ for protection), it may be a bold political calculation to conduct a national campaign against a backdrop of controversy about so many hotly contested local issues and potential disappointments for many of the electorate.

This might point to pressure to speed up the implementation process, but is more likely to delay it so that the claimed benefits of the reforms are reassuringly still all in the future and the disbenefits for existing residents and their community representatives remain battles for another day and so less tangible.

Even on the Government’s own timetable expectations there seems to be minimal prospect of the reforms being translated into actual developments coming out of the ground, or any significant number of new homes for sale or rent, by the time of the next General Election. The political rewards do not therefore seem too obvious, on any short term basis. If the reforms are successful in reshaping the planning landscape as the Government hopes, the real rewards will not be reaped until the next Parliament.

The White Paper has little to say about transitional arrangements. It suggests that recently approved plans and existing permissions can be implemented “as intended” (para 5.2), but most recent plans having plan periods running well into the 2030s, and the White Paper (grudgingly) recognises that 50% of local authorities have an up to date plan in place (para 1.3). It seems unreal that the Government, having identified what the Prime Ministerial foreword contends is an “outdated and ineffective planning system” that is “no longer fit for human habitation”, will simply await for the 5 yearly reviews of those plans (most likely after the next General Election) before expecting any attempts in those areas to engage with its new ‘zoning’ system and the perceived clarity and unlocking of growth that will flow in its wake. Thus, there may be pressure to narrow down on what is regarded as a “recently approved” plan, and transitional plans under the 2012 NPPF might not be so regarded.

The White Paper is remarkably ‘woolly’ on how its fundamental reforms to plan-making will be paid for. It recognises that landowners and developers are the principal beneficiaries of the new system (para 5.17) but shies away from suggesting that they should (or how they could) be required to pay for ‘zoning’ plans. Clearly, there will be major practical difficulties in suggesting that those who participate in plan-making (usually to oppose some aspect of what is being proposed by the LPA) should pay for the privilege of doing so. However, if those whose land is favourably allocated are expected to pay, the impartiality of the process may well be called into question. On an interim basis, LPAs may receive some transitional funding (para 5.21). This is an aspect of the reforms where greater clarity would be welcome.

Short term changes

The new interim standard method for calculating local housing need (0.5 % of current stock/latest household projections, whichever is greater, plus affordability uplift and NO cap) will be applied from the date the final revised PPG guidance is published, but Local Plans already at Reg.19 stage at that date can use the current standard method if they actually submit the Local Plan within 6 months of that date. Local Plans nearly at Reg.19 at that date will have 3 months to get to Reg. 19 and 6 months to submit if they want to use the current standard method. The revised guidance may well be published by the end of 2020 (consultation ends on 1 October 2020). Thus, Local Plans unlikely to reach Reg.19 until Q2 2021 should expect to have to use the new standard method.

The new First Homes tranche of Affordable Housing (25% of required AH, and adjustments to the remaining mix to maintain viability), will apply for Local/Neighbourhood Plans submitted 6 months after the new policy is “enacted” (the Government has reserved the option of making this not just policy but also backing it up with legislation). The policy-only route could also be achieved by the end of 2020, so Plans submitted in Q3 2021 should expect to provide for First Homes.

The time-limited change to the small site exception from AH (increased from 10 to 40 or 50 unit schemes) will not have any transitional period and could be introduced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement (November 2020?).

The reforms to permission in principle (to embrace major developments on non-brownfield register sites) will require new regulations, which are expected in Autumn 2020 and coming into force by the end of the year. NB the exclusion of EIA development from the PiP regime is not proposed to change.

The consultation on short term changes says nothing about how its reforms are to be funded (but some changes are proposed to reduce the application fees in PiP cases).