Government shake-up aims to speed up and modernise planning system

An overhaul of the country’s outdated planning system that will deliver the high-quality, sustainable homes communities need will be at the heart of the most significant reforms to housing policy in decades, the Housing Secretary announced today (August 6).

The landmark changes will transform a system that has long been criticised for being too sluggish in providing housing for families, key workers and young people and too ineffectual in obligating developers to properly fund the infrastructure – such as schools, roads and GP surgeries – to support them.

Valued green spaces and Green Belt will continue to be protected for future generations, with the reforms allowing for more building on brownfield land.

Local community agreement will be at the centre of the proposals being put forward in the White Paper, Planning for the Future, published today.

The changes will be a major boost to SME builders currently cut off by the planning process.

They will be key players in getting the country building on the scale needed to drive economic recovery, while leading housebuilding that is beautiful and builds on local heritage and character.

The current system has shown itself to be unfavourable to small businesses, with the proportion of new homebuilding they lead on dropping drastically from 40% 30 years ago to just 12% today.

Recent studies show smaller firms feel the complexities of the planning process and its associated risks, delays and costs are the key challenges they face in homebuilding.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Our complex planning system has been a barrier to building the homes people need – it takes seven years to agree local housing plans and five years just to get a spade in the ground.

“These once-in-a-generation reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country.

“We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.

“As we face the economic effects of the pandemic, now is the time for decisive action and a clear plan for jobs and growth.

“Our reforms will create thousands of jobs, lessen the dominance of big builders in the system, providing a major boost for small building companies across the country.”

The reforms will mean:

  • Local communities will be consulted from the very beginning of the planning process. By harnessing the latest technology through online maps and data, the whole system will be made more accessible;
  • Valued green spaces will be protected for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree lined;
  • Much-needed homes will be built quicker by ensuring local housing plans are developed and agreed in 30 months – down from the current seven years;
  • Every area to have a local plan in place – currently only 50% of local areas has a plan to build more homes;
  • The planning process to be overhauled and replaced with a clearer, rules-based system. Currently around a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned at appeal;
  • A new simpler national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions which often causes delay;
  • The creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings and establishing local design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities; and
  • All new homes to be carbon neutral by 2050, with no new homes delivered under the new system needed to be retrofitted.

Matthew Fell, CBI chief UK policy director, said: “Changes to the planning system will help ramp up the availability of homes in places where people need them most.

“These reforms will allow housebuilders to get to work, supporting supply chains, and more flexible, local labour markets around the country.

“Delivering high-quality, safe and environmentally-friendly new homes is critical for meeting our climate targets while accelerating regional growth and tackling inequality. Affordability of future housing supply must remain at the forefront of these efforts.”

He added: “With coronavirus continuing to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the economy, a more flexible planning system must give local authorities and businesses scope to deliver the homes people need in the short term while laying the groundwork for sustainable communities for decades to come.”

James Thomson, chief executive of Gleeson Homes, which currently has more than 20 development sites throughout the North West, said: “We strongly support the reform of our historic planning system, to bring it up to speed and ensure it is fit for purpose for the modern-day.

“In particular, we welcome initiatives to make it more transparent, speed up planning where appropriate and has a presumption towards development rather than against.

“The renewed commitment to building 300,000 new homes a year is an important goal and will be aided by these new initiatives.”

He said: “At Gleeson, our focus is building low-cost quality homes in areas of regeneration and on brownfield land.

“The permission in principle initiative will help us to fast-track hundreds of new affordable homes for first-time buyers and essential workers on lower incomes who are eager to get a foot on the property ladder.

“Not only will these reforms go some way to supporting local SME housebuilders and their supply chains, but they will also help to ‘level-up’ the country through increased infrastructure investment, bringing jobs and homes to the north.

“It’s also promising to see the Government renew its commitment to building well designed places for people to live and work, rather than just schemes that focus solely on density often to the detriment of place.”

The Housing Secretary also confirmed today that The First Homes scheme will provide newly-built homes at a 30% discount for local people, key workers and first-time buyers.

The discount will be locked into the home in perpetuity, ensuring future buyers can continue to benefit from it.

A new and simpler system of developer contributions will also ensure private firms play their part in funding the new infrastructure and Affordable Homes that should accompany new building.

Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy will be replaced with a new Infrastructure Levy that will be a fixed proportion of the value of the development, above a set threshold, helping to deliver more affordable housing.

Revenues would be spent locally on projects such as new roads, upgraded playgrounds and discounted homes for local, first-time buyers.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said: “Local, small builders are ready and waiting to play their part in delivering the homes, jobs, and growth we need if we are to ‘build, build, build’ our way to recovery.

“But the increasing complexities and costs of the planning system in England have held them back.

“Alongside struggles to access affordable land, 64% of developing small builders cite the planning system as the biggest barrier they face.”

He added: “We need a simpler and more responsive planning system, but I am clear that this shouldn’t compromise the quality of the homes that are built.

“Master Builders compete on quality, not on price, and have an important role to play in a more diverse housing market.

“We must also ensure local planning authorities are supported to respond to these changes, so that any shake-up doesn’t lead to further short-term delays in applications.

“If we get this right, making it easier for SME house builders to play a role will help support jobs, provide training opportunities for apprentices, and lead to higher quality, green homes that are fit for the future.”

Adam Hall, managing director of Liverpool-based architects Falconer Chester Hall, said he welcomed the proposed changes, adding: “We are well versed in working with zone-based planning parameters.

Adam Hall

“This approach is used in Malaysia and was adopted on our Kuala Lumpur mixed-use development where the specifics of use, quantum, height, density and massing were prescribed at the outset, the planning process was streamlined and efficient with an emphasis on maintaining the design quality of the development.

“The proposed changes will not provide the ‘free-for-all’ that was initially expected – eligibility criteria and ‘prior approval’ requirements will still need to be met.”

He said: “We applaud the proposed changes to the system that will improve cost efficiency and development certainty by reducing the time to gain approval, whilst ensuring high quality outcomes are delivered.”