Against the background of a looming cost of living crisis and the current war in Ukraine, the Government has placed growth of the economy and its ‘levelling up’ programme front and centre of its legislative programme for the coming year. However, most of the fundamental planning reforms highlighted in the August 2020 Planning White Paper appear to be dead and buried.
The opening line of the Queen’s Speech, (delivered for the first time by the Duke of Cornwall, on behalf of the Queen), promised that the Government’s priority would be ‘to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families. ‘Her Majesty’s Government will level up opportunity in all parts of the country and support more people into work’, he said.
Developing the theme, he announced that ‘A Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will be brought forward to drive local growth, empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas, and ensuring everyone can share in the UK’s success. The planning system will be reformed to give residents more involvement in local development’. But there was nothing more to hint on how the growing Housing Emergency might be tackled and after a nearly two-year hiatus since the Planning White Paper, any tangible planning reform proposals appear to be extremely limited.
The background papers to the Queen’s Speech indicate that the purpose of the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill is to ‘level up the UK, grow the economy in the places that need it most and regenerate our towns and cities – giving people the opportunities they want, where they live’. They also propose to ‘Improve the planning system to give communities a louder voice, making sure developments are beautiful, green and accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing’. However, there are few indications as to how either objective is actually to be achieved – nor why they necessarily require legislative change.
The Government suggest that the main benefits of the Bill would be:
· Laying the foundations for all of England to have the opportunity to benefit from a devolution deal by 2030 – giving local leaders the powers they need to drive real improvement in their communities. (This suggests that local government reform must be in the pipeline),
· Improving outcomes for our natural environment by introducing a new approach to environmental assessment in our planning system. It states; ‘This benefit of Brexit will mean the environment is further prioritised in planning decisions’. (This could signal a reform of the EIA process as well as other DEFRA initiatives on biodiversity, water and nutrient neutrality and landscape review),
· Capturing more of the financial value created by development with a locally set, non-negotiable levy to deliver the infrastructure that communities need, such as housing, schools, GPs and new roads. (The change from Section 106 and CIL to a new Infrastructure Levy is the one major surviving element of the two-year old Planning White Paper),
· Simplifying and standardising the process for local plans so that they are produced more quickly and are easier for communities to influence. (This could capture the long-running proposal to streamline Local Plans, but the promise within the Queen’s Speech to give a greater voice to local people about future development and the content of Design Codes is surely likely to do the opposite of speeding up the process).
According to the background paper, some of the main elements of the Bill are:
· Placing a duty on Government to set Levelling Up missions and produce an annual report on them,
· Creating a new model of combined authorities: with ‘County Deals’ to co-ordinate local services – a clear acknowledgement of the need for some form of wider strategic planning,
· Giving new powers to authorities to bring empty premises back into use and instigate rental auctions of vacant commercial properties in town centres and on high streets,
· Strengthening neighbourhood planning, improving digital processes to make local plans easier to find, understand and engage with, and making it easier for local authorities to get local plans in place, (and somewhat ominously to ‘limit speculative development’),
· and finally, giving residents more of a say over changing street names and ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining! (Something which no doubt will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the weather starts to improve!).
Other planned legislation (amongst the list of 38 Bills in the Queen’s Speech) includes a Social Housing Regulation Bill said to improve the regulation of social housing, to strengthen the rights of tenants and ensure better quality, safer homes – arising out of the recent Social Housing White Paper and a Housing Reform Bill to improve fairness and transparency in the leasehold market.
There were no real surprises (nor excitement) at a busy and yet modest programme of legislation for the coming year. ‘Levelling-up’, one of the key planks of the programme has already been signalled as a long-term strategy which will not deliver results within this Parliament. But looking ahead, the devolution of decision making to County deals may well offer more certainty and opportunity for housing and planning in the future with a clearer strategic element.
The tricky dilemma about how to tackle a growing housing shortfall without upsetting local objectors to development appears to have created a schizophrenic solution whereby Local Plans will be streamlined and yet offer more opportunities for the public to have their say over future development – not an easy circle to square.
The Infrastructure Levy is still very much on the cards (possibly replacing S106 and CIL) but the ‘devil will undoubtedly be in the detail’ on this one, as Michael Gove follows the example of the Residential Property Development Tax and Biodiversity Net Gain plans in capturing more money from the housebuilders, promoters and developers to fund everything including affordable housing.
One positive aspect of the Queen’s Speech however will be that local authorities will no longer have any excuse for delaying their Local Plans – since those wholesale reforms won’t now happen.
Maybe Ministers and DLUHC will now take a close look at the LPDF’s package of more detailed planning reform proposals which can all be done without legislative change.