Jenrick asserts brownfield first but more clarity to follow

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On the back of the Coronavirus-impacted first Budget of Boris Johnson’s administration, MHCLG has published proposals which will pave the way for future reforms to the UK’s planning system.

In a statement to the Commons, Secretary of State at MHCLG, Robert Jenrick MP, announced that a Planning White Paper will be published in “spring this year” which will produce a planning system “fit for the 21st century”. Based on the Government’s notoriously flexible definition of “Spring”, White Paper may land in March or June.

The speech and the paper “Planning for the Future” with it, gave some clues on what the potential reforms may amount to. If there was a theme, it was prioritising brownfield sites. This was evidenced through the announcement of £400 million of funding for brownfield regeneration, launching a national brownfield sites map in April 2020 and a call for proposals for building above stations. These measures were well-received with a stampede of Conservative MPs largely from Home Counties lining up to praise Jenrick’s explicit support for brownfield development over precious Green Belt sites.

However, the focus on brownfield sites raises some questions. For starters, in order to meet required housing numbers, a reliance on brownfield sites indicates an anticipated increase in housing density. This was acknowledged by Jenrick confirming that the Government will introduce new permitted development rights for building upwards on existing buildings by Summer 2020, including the right to extend residential blocks by two storeys. This might be less popular in towns and cities across the country and we have yet to see if it will have a real impact on housing delivery. There will certainly be many Conservatives both in national and local government, who will be nervous about seeing taller buildings in urban and suburban areas.

Garden settlements were not a big feature of the speech, or the accompanying documents. Instead there was an intriguing commitment to reviewing the formula for calculating Local Housing Need with suggestion that a new approach will favour “building within and near to urban areas”. This raises the prospect how this approach will work – will there be weighting so that housing in these areas attracts more tax for the host authority or will some other incentives be found?
A new announcement came with the promise to consult on a new permitted development right to allow vacant commercial, industrial or residential buildings to be demolished and replaced with new residential units. At a time when commercial space is being lost in urban areas (along with attendant Business Rates), there will undoubtedly be some concern from business groups about any policies which could potentially exacerbate this process which is already deeply unpopular with councils.

One area where there was some much-needed clarity was the deadline Jenrick has set for all local authorities to have up-to-date local plans by December 2023. If a council fails to meet this deadline, it has been made clear that the Government will intervene to take ownership of process. After Jenrick’s decisive intervention which compelled South Oxfordshire District Council to take their controversial local plan to examination, local authorities are now firmly on notice that this Government will not tolerate Councils which procrastinate over adopting local plans.

Building on the recommendations of the recent “Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission” report, it is likely that the Planning White Paper will contain some elements around design and place-making. Jenrick announced that the NPPF will be updated to “embed the principles of good design and placemaking” and that treelined streets “will be the norm”. As ever, with all matters of beauty, views will be largely subjective and predominantly in the eye of the beholder. However, there is a potential conflict with the prospect of zoning land for development to allow for quicker house building – something to watch.

In terms of specific measures for the industry, there are some helpful hints of what is in store in the White Paper – and there is something for everyone:

  • Increasing planning fees to improve services – something the majority of developers would probably welcome
    Deliver automatic rebates for successful appeals to hold planning committees to account – another item developers will welcome
  • Options to ensure build out – an urgently needed measure for council’s with high housing targets in adopted Plans who are beginning to fall foul of lower than expected delivery rates
  • A more efficient CPO process – it remains to be seen whether this will be effective
  • Possible use of zoning along the lines of the Freeport model – this would need to be carefully managed to avoid conflicting with Building Beautiful

Today’s paper is more of a signpost than a confirmation of a major step change in Government Planning policy, which we are informed is likely to be announced in the upcoming White Paper. However, all the signs point to a prioritisation of brownfield sites with greater density being provided at the expense of the greenfield development which has characterised much of the last decade of house building outside the M25.

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