UK: Review Of Land Use Planning – Final Report By Kate Barker

Last Updated: 18 December 2006
Article by Oliver Goodwin and Rachael Jordan

The review, driven by HM Treasury, is focused on bringing development forward, mainly by incentivising reuse of land, speeding up planning applications, appeals and plan-making processes and adding weight to policies on economic development. The extent to which the Government is prepared to push through these changes, against some inevitable cost to community involvement and environmental interests, remains to be seen.

All those engaged in the planning system would overwhelmingly identify the slowness and uncertainty of the application, appeal and plan-making processes as the main impediments to economic development. Most of these problems would be solved by the obvious and simple, but politically unpalatable, solution of committing to major funding of local authority planning departments and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS). The Report proposes some, but not sufficient, funding for PINS and the proposals taken together will go some way towards, but will not solve the problems identified in the Report.

We look below at some of the key recommendations and assess whether they will achieve their objectives:

1. More efficient use of vacant or blighted urban land.

  • Reduce business rate relief for empty property
  • Consider levying a charge on vacant and derelict brownfield land
  • Consult on fiscal incentives to remediate contaminated land.

This 'carrot and stick' approach will be bad news for those with empty sites and buildings, but may be good news if help with clean up costs is substantial.

2. Reducing the amount of information required to support planning applications.

  • Reduce the amount of information required to support applications
  • Remove the requirement to demonstrate 'need' in major applications
  • Reduce the amount of information associated with Environmental Statements.

The first recommendation is a welcome reversal of the burden of more documents, introduced by the Planning Act 2004. In particular, the removal of the requirement to demonstrate 'need' will significantly reduce the cost of preparing major applications. Closer prescription of the extent of information required in Environmental Statements should help bring some consistency, since local authority practice in scoping statements is currently wildly inconsistent from area to area, but this will continue to be a legal minefield.

3. LPAs delegating more decisions to planning officers.

  • Increase the use of pre-application discussion for major applications
  • Release major applications from the current 13-week target where a Planning Delivery Agreement is in place
  • Council members should delegate more major applications to planning officers.

These proposals will bring much needed help in speeding up the process and should also discourage the infuriating practice by some Councils of refusing schemes simply to meet their Planning Delivery Grant targets.

4. Speeding up the appeals system.

  • Introduction of a Planning Mediation Service
  • Planning Inspectors to determine the appeal route for cases
  • Appeals should be completed in 6 months
  • An additional £2 million in public funding for the Planning Inspectorate.

These are some of the measures to address the increased number of appeals, and significant lengthening in the time it takes to obtain decisions. The extra funding for the Planning Inspectorate is much needed and is long overdue. Last year 34% of appeals at inquiry took over a year. The proposal that the Planning Inspector can dictate the appeal route is worrying - applicants should retain the right to an inquiry, since although slower, success rates are significantly higher.

A Planning Mediation Service is welcomed. It works in New Zealand and Australia where it provides a quicker, cheaper and more flexible option to the appeal process and may be attractive in many cases where positions are not poles apart.

5. A new system for dealing with major infrastructure projects.

  • Government should urgently consider major reform
  • Clearer national policy framework to limit the scope of the objections
  • Create an independent Planning Commission (a panel of experts from a range of professional fields) to cut out the Ministerial decision-making phase.

These changes are likely to be made. There is great impetus for reform both for energy projects following a recent DTI review and for transport projects from the Eddington Transport Study, also published in early December.

6. Speeding up production of Development Plan Documents (DPDs).

  • Reform local plan-making documents to be delivered within 18-24 months
  • Remove the formal requirement for an Issues and Options phase of DPDs
  • Decisions on major applications not to be delayed pending completion of site allocation and Area Action Plans.

Any acceleration and streamlining of the process is welcomed. If implemented it should allow developers to bring forward proposals in parallel with, or ahead of, amendments to the Local Development Frameworks (LDF), instead of waiting for years. This corresponds with new guidance for Housing in PPS3, issued in November, which advises that Councils should not refuse applications solely on the grounds of prematurity. The 2004 Act was meant to speed up the production of the Development Plan, but the process currently takes 3 years or more, and the first two LDFs produced under the updated regime were rejected by Government inspectors. We suspect that there will be some tweaking by the Government to speed up the process, but fundamental changes to the system which was only recently brought into force are unlikely.

7. Review of green belt boundaries.

  • Councils should review their green belt boundaries to ensure they remain relevant and appropriate
  • Councils should also take a more positive approach to applications that will enhance the quality of the green belts.

This will be the most controversial recommendation of the Report. Environmental groups, including The Campaign to Protect Rural England, have already expressed fears that the recommendations would speed up the loss of countryside, if implemented.

8. Greater emphasis on economics in plan making.

  • Update national policy on economic development and regeneration by the end of 2007, particularly PPG4, to ensure that the benefits of development are taken into account in plans and planning decisions.

This is long overdue – PPG4 is out of date and of little practical value. To be of any value, the new PPS4 will need to have 'teeth', particularly in directing policy on regeneration of sites.

9. Promoting a positive planning culture.

  • Introduce a presumption that, where the plan is out-of-date or unclear, applications are approved unless there is good reason to believe that the environmental, social and economic costs will exceed benefits.

Next Steps

The Government is now consulting on the Report - comments can be sent to DCLG until 5 March 2007. The Government will then set out its responses to the recommendations in the Report in a White Paper in Spring 2007.

Most of the proposals require new legislation, so the earliest we might expect to see these changes come into effect is autumn 2007.

This article is only intended as a general statement and no action should be taken in reliance on it without specific legal advice.

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