Debate to rage on five new planning Bills

Copyright: David Lawson

Published: Property Week 2007

Another year, another set of planning reforms. Like buses, you wait forever for one then along comes a fleet.  MPs will debate no fewer than five Bills over the next nine months in what the Royal Town Planning Institute has called the biggest reforms for English planning since the war [Wales and Scotland have their own queues].  

Planning Reform Bill

Proposal: An independent infrastructure planning commission combined with a single consent regime for nationally significant projects such as power stations, reservoirs and airports.  Despite years of debate, a hole was left by the 2004 Act. Projects like Heathrow’s Terminal 5 showed any switch to nuclear power stations could stall during interminable consultations.

Problem: Locals could feel left out, creating just as much delay by taking disputes to the courts – or creating political embarrassment through direct action.

Proposal: A statutory planning charge - perhaps the only new idea in the torrent of proposed changes. This is a screeching U-turn for ministers who fought hard for the development tax suggested in the Barker Report. Tariffs will instead be based on ‘roof taxes’ pioneered in Milton Keynes and Ebbsfleet, Kent. They will make costs more predictable, according to planning minister Yvette Cooper.

Problem:  ‘This is no instant answer,’ says Graham Stock, a planning partner at Drivers Jonas.  The new system will not be in place until 2009 and even then charges have to be justified in development plans which must go through consultation and planning inquiries. Hopes for the uniform, simple system developers crave could evaporate as councils use low charges to promote development while others try to block activity. Some could end up battling a government desperate for new homes.

   Prospects for confusion will not be helped by the fact that charges will be additional to Section 106 agreements, which many councils are already using to set various systems of tariffs. Squabbles over what is a ‘site specific’ charge and what is justifiable for wider infrastructure needs could proliferate.  Nor should it be forgotten that separate fees for submitting applications could soar. Small print in the White Paper which set the tone for the Reform Bill reveals these could rise 25% and the maximum fee of £50,000 could be abolished.   

Proposal: A clutch of more mundane proposals will go down better with the development community, attacking problems raised since the 2004 Act including the complexity of development plans and snail-like decision making. They propose to cut development plan paperwork and ease controls on small projects such as extensions and enable councils to speed disputes by deciding on minor appeals

Problems:  The aim is to reduce the burden on over-stretched planners but it remains to be seen whether officials handling minor tasks will have the skills to transfer and speed through bigger projects. Developers would prefer more resources to attract planners. Ironically they are draining the pool by taking many onto their own staff.  Allowing councils to decide appeals on their own decisions could also transfer battles to the courts.

Housing and Regeneration Bill

 The second great statement of government intent, under which it will push through plans to create 3m new homes by 2020

Proposals: Merger of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships into a new body called the Homes and Communities Agency, creation of 10 eco-towns and opening the way for councils to build social housing.

Problems: The jury is still out on whether merging two sets of skills – land assembly and housebuilding – will succeed. The key to more council building also lies with the Housing Delivery Grant, which is intricately tied up with regional plans.  Consultant Barton Willmore says councils are making ‘abysmal’ progress drawing up core strategies, local frameworks and site allocation plans which are critical to allocation of funds.   More than 50 applications have been submitted for eco-towns but a slump in house prices could curb such enthusiasm.

Climate Change Bill

Proposal: Planning to be ‘put at the heart’ of the drive to a low carbon economy.

Problems: Confusion has already clouded issues such as the ‘Merton Rule’, demanding 10% renewable energy for each development. Government advice seems to alternate between whether this should be on or off site. The measure also needs local development plans to be completed.   

Energy Bill and Marine Bill

The first is integral to planning and carbon reforms while the latter aims to ensure sustainable development of the coastline.

Finally….not yet a Bill

The Competition Commission created yet more uncertainty by proposing more choice among big supermarkets. This, along with moves to prevent retailers tying up sites, could lead to dilution of ‘centre first’ planning policies which were only introduced in 2005.

One planning milestone has already passed almost without notice in the furore of proposed reforms. The Greater London Act will create a huge shift in planning power next April, when Mayor Ken Livingstone finally achieves his ambition to take strategic control of the capital.   Currently he can only direct boroughs to refuse applications: in future he will be able to grant permissions and negotiate S106 agreements. Details of where responsibilities divide have yet to be worked out and are likely to create huge rows. Boroughs like Westminster seem bound to drag disputes into the courts, causing huge uncertainties and delay.