2015 Planning reforms – Fixing the Foundations or Forgetting the Fundamentals?

It is widely understood that the planning system is in place to ensure that development is carried out to a high standard which will benefit communities and the economy without causing negative impact on the environment. At Landmark, we have the benefit of working with responsible clients who set out to develop ethically sound schemes in response to both national and local planning policies.

Our planning team appreciates that delivering the brief of a client requires a careful balance of economic interests with the principles of sustainable development. It is, however, increasingly considered by some that the English planning system stands as one of the most substantial constraints of our economy, and as a result, significant changes have recently been proposed to speed up the rate at which planning decisions are made.

Recent policy changes

projects-residential-linden-slide3During his election campaign, David Cameron made a promise that 200,000 homes would be made available to first time buyers in England by 2020. The Chancellor George Osbourne’s latest 2015 planning reform proposals ‘Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation’ aims to reduce planning bureaucracy and make it easier for residential development to go ahead.

As a result, major infrastructure projects are now to be fast-tracked under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Regime if they include an element of housing, and there will be new sanctions for local authorities which do not process small to medium-sized housing planning applications on time. In addition to this, London homeowners will no longer need to obtain planning permission for an extension up to the height of the neighbouring building.

A point from ‘Fixing the Foundations’ which has caused much upset in a number of sectors is the scrapping of the zero-carbon Allowable Solutions scheme along with the proposed 2016 increase in onsite energy efficiency standards. This is not only unwelcome for the families who will live with inefficient homes and high energy bills, but also for the housebuilding industry which has invested heavily in evolving energy efficient construction techniques and technologies, and the low carbon industries that has developed to supply those technologies.The effects are not only economic.  The decision to drop Allowable Solutions also threatens the UK’s chances of meeting the European Union’s obligations for nearly-zero energy buildings from 2020.

A common thread for both sustainable development and the energy generating sectors is that the most effective way to reduce carbon footprint is to increase energy efficiency.  Along with the recent cut of funding for small-scale renewables, the scrapping of Allowable Solutions will almost certainly mean that while the UK might squeeze in just hitting 2020 targets, we are extremely unlikely to be able to meet the requirements of the Climate Change Act 2008, for the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.

Brownfield sites, planning process and resources

In another measure to streamline development a new zonal system is proposed to identify and designate brownfield sites where automatic permission will be given to developers. Although designed to reduce red tape and increase the rate at which development is built, this move is another in a long line of measures to encourage brown rather than green field development, and it is hard to imagine that the development sector would not already have brought forward such sites if they were technically viable.

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Brownfield sites are rarely development ready and normally more complex in terms of environmental, economic and social constraints than green field sites.  Even if viability barriers and technical issues can be overcome before being zoned, it would fly in the face of promoting regeneration for economic growth if schemes were permitted without any kind of design management.

Law of unintended consequences

Delivery of new policies will fall largely at the door of local planning authorities, where lack of resources has already hindered many from timely determination of planning applications or adopting a Local Plan. In these cases, ‘Fixing the Foundations’ gives new powers to the Secretary of State to intervene and arrange for the Local Plans to be written externally.  Anyone familiar with the planning process will be painfully aware of the delays and lack of certainty, for both communities and developers, that results from limiting local autonomy and local knowledge in favour of short term national economic objectives.

Talk of streamlining the planning system goes back 40 years since the Dobry Report, but a drive to fast track the process to a perceived acceptable period cannot be the catalyst for genuine reform. Objectives for managing development should be agreed upon and quality must be evaluated before we try to reduce the duration of the process any further. The impetus to promote quick wins by ad hoc policy changes raises danger of disregarding local development needs and losing the roots of the planning process, which should seek to balance economic, social and environmental interests at all scales.

Short term attempts to streamline the planning process result in a significantly reduced focus on the planning product. In zoning brownfield sites and widening the scope of General Permitted Development Orders the process is being taken back back to a time when planning practice was seen as a wholly scientific and value-free process. Disregarding professional judgements of better or worse outcomes for a particular place can only lead to a loss of individual character, local heritage and ecological diversity.

To truly benefit investors and the community, streamlining measures must be practical and capable of being implemented.  They should not undermine existing investment in the economy and certainly need not be at the expense of sustainable development.

 

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