The Planning White Paper: Radical reform or minor amendments?

The Government has issued its long-awaited and much trailed White Paper on reforming the planning system. It weighs in at 43 pages and so this article does not attempt to summarise the whole paper, but rather to pick out some of the more interesting ideas contained within in it.

Faster and shorter Local Plans  

Although there has been much discussion on the arrival of a new “zoning system”, the White Paper doesn’t quite go that far. As has been trailed, there is a proposal to zone land within one of three categories, but in many cases it doesn’t seem that what happens next will be so different to what happens today. 

Perhaps the most radical aspect of the policy is the removal of all general development management policies from Local Plans. These will instead be set nationally, rather than reinvented by each local authority in turn. This will help shorten plans to around a third of their current length, with policies only setting out site and/or area parameters for development. Where development is encouraged, policies will set out parameters such as maximum heights or densities. Sub areas could be created for self-build homes and community-led housing projects. 

Councils will then have to allocate enough land to meet their development needs for at least the next 10 years. There will be a nationally determined, binding housing requirement that local authorities must deliver through their Local Plans. This will factor in factors such as the degree of existing urbanisation, housing affordability pressure and constraints such as Green Belt. 

In Local Plans, land will be categorised as one of the following: 

  • Growth areas: Outline planning permission will be automatically granted here for “substantial development”, a term which is to be defined in future policy but might include new settlements, urban extensions, and redevelopment of former industrial sites. “Automatically granted” might mean a reformed reserved matters process, but it could also include the local authority working up a Local Development Order alongside the Local Plan, or for very large sites such as new settlements, using the Development Consent Order process under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime. Growth areas cannot include areas of flood risk, or other constraints, “unless risks can be fully mitigated”. 
  • Renewal areas: These could be existing built areas where smaller scale development is appropriate such as “gentle densification” or infill in residential areas is allowed, and also town centre developments, and small sites on the edge of villages. These would benefit from a presumption in favour of development, which could mean a new automatic permission route for schemes that meet certain prior approval requirements, or a faster planning application process, or a Local or Neighbourhood Development Order. Local authorities could still “consider the case for resisting inappropriate development of residential gardens”. 
  • Protected areas: These could include the Green Belt, AONB, Conservation Areas, Local Wildlife Sites, flood risk areas and important green spaces. They could also include general areas of open countryside, and even residential gardens. Some protected areas will be set nationally – others locally. You might have got the impression from recent newspaper articles that all development will be banned in these areas, but that is not the case at all.  In these areas, proposals will come forward exactly as they do now – with applications being submitted and considered against the NPPF. 

Local Plans would be subject only to a Test of Sustainable Development and a simplified environmental assessment process. All other tests including soundness, duty to co-operate, viability and sustainability appraisals will be abolished. 

It appears there will be a national, map-based standard template for Local Plans.  Neighbourhood plans would also be retained in some form.  

Local Plans are to be adopted in 2½ years, otherwise sanctions will apply. This will be staged as follows: 

  • A 6 month “Call for Sites” stage which will include (unspecified) “best in class” ways of achieving public involvement on where development should and should not go; 
  • A 12 month stage for the authority to draw up a plan and provide evidence to justify it. “Higher risk” authorities will get visits from the Inspectorate to ensure their plans are on track.  
  • A 6 week stage where authorities will submit their plans to the Secretary of State and, simultaneously consult the public, again using “best in class” techniques 
  • A 9 month Inspection stage where anyone who has commented has a right to be heard by the Inspector 
  • A 6 week stage to finalise the plan text and mapping, then adopt the plan  

An alternative proposal is also mooted, where the local authority could “self-certify” its plan instead of having to undergo formal examination, though the White Paper does recognise that there may be some concerns about this… 

Modernisation and digital data 

This is a key theme in the White Paper, which seeks to do away with old fashioned techniques such as hanging site notices on lampposts.  

In preparing plans, authorities should use digital tools to encourage people to comment using their phones and social media. Local Plans and other planning data should be digitised and land information made openly available in a standard format for use in other applications, and so that a national strategic development map can be created. 

There is talk of the automation of certain (unspecified) processes within development management being encouraged, with shorter and standardised application processes especially for smaller schemes. Planning Statements are to be limited to 50 pages! 

The Government is again considering automatically refunding fees if applications are not determined quickly enough, but they are also considering whether permissions should be granted automatically if there has not been a timely determination. That may sound like a recipe for more refusals and more appeals, though the White Paper expects fewer appeals to be made as there will be greater certainty about the principle of development. And where an appeal is allowed following a refusal, applications will be entitled to an automatic refund of their application fee, which should encourage better consideration of schemes by planning committees. 

You will also be reassured to know that the Secretary of State will still be able to call applications in for their own determination.  

Design and Sustainability 

There is much discussion about how developments should be beautiful and have high energy efficiency standards.  

A fast-track system will be introduced to automatically permit developments with high quality design. To assist with this, site specific masterplans and design codes will need to be developed either alongside the Local Plans (Local Plans teams are going to have a busy time!) or afterwards (though one might be forgiven for thinking that may slow delivery down?) 

Design codes will be set locally, based on “genuine community involvement rather than meaningless consultation” – and will be binding (what price innovative or modern design?). Every local authority is to have a Chief Officer for Design & Place Making to assist with this.  

A quicker, simpler framework is to be introduced for assessing environmental impacts. Whilst heritage is still to be protected, one idea posed is whether suitably experienced architects could earn autonomy from routine listed buildings consents.  

Reform of development contributions 

The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and Section 106 payments will be abolished altogether. They will be replaced by a nationally set, value-based flat rate “Infrastructure Levy” charge, which will apparently raise greater revenue and deliver at least as much affordable housing as now. The new levy would be charged as a fixed proportion of development value, above a threshold, and would be levied at the point of occupation rather than commencement.  

We are promised that S106 and viability negotiations will no longer be needed. It is proposed that any levy system would be “buoyant” so that when prices go up, the benefits are shared between developers and the community, and conversely when prices go down there is no need to renegotiate agreements.  

The Infrastructure Levy will allow local authorities to secure more on-site affordable housing provision – this would be an “in kind delivery” with the discount from market rates then being offset from the final cash liability of the Levy.  

The new Infrastructure Levy will also apply to permitted development– even where no new floorspace is created – but self and custom build schemes would remain exempt. 

Other ideas 

Other items which may be of interest include that: 

  • The Housing Delivery Test will be maintained under the new system, but there should not be a “continuing requirement to be able to demonstrate a five-year supply of land”.  
  • An updated Standard Method for housing requirements will distribute the annual national target of 300,000 homes across all districts – and each authority’s target will be binding.
  • Larger development sites should be developed by more than one developer, to speed up delivery. 
  • “To provide better information to local communities, to promote competition amongst. 
  • developers, and to assist SMEs and new entrants to the sector, [the Government] will consult on options for improving the data held on contractual arrangements used to control land.” 
  • New public buildings – such as government offices or further education colleges – should support the renewal and regeneration of town centres. 
  • Disposal of public land should also better support the SME and self-build sectors. 
  • There will be also be strengthened enforcement powers! 

Next steps 

The consultation is open from today, and runs until 29th October. In the meantime, the Government is also consulting on some changes to the current planning system on the same timescale – those will be covered in a separate post! 

For more information call 01622776226 or email:

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