Nick Belsten, London Director, Planning Consultancy at WSP, discusses the government’s proposed planning reforms.
While renewing existing commitments to housing delivery, the 24 proposals in the government’s Planning for the Future white paper represent the biggest changes to our planning system since the 1990 Planning Act. The proposals have consequences for everyone; from developers, local authorities and housebuilders to communities, families and individuals.
Changes include the government’s annual housing target of 300,000 homes now being set at a national level, and the community infrastructure levy and S106 agreements being replaced by a national infrastructure levy which incorporates land value capture.
The most radical changes are saved for the Local Plan process. This will see development management policies replaced with national policies with zones assigned as either ‘Growth’, ‘Renewal’ or ‘Protected’ to manage where development can and cannot take place.
Here are WSP’s Planning Consultancy’s key takeaways for London and our development and planning community from the government’s proposed reforms:
- Investment will be needed in local authority planning
Our 32 local planning authorities and the City of London will require significant investment – this is particularly key in London. New plan-making responsibilities include designating zones, developing masterplans and design codes for development; as well delivering local housing targets designated by government, based on household projections, affordability and the environment. The government agrees and has promised to review skills and investment in order to deliver these proposals and it is vital that this takes place.
- Zoning in London will need urgent clarity
Large parts of London are already designated within conservation areas and it would be limiting for development if these areas are designated a “Protected” area. Local authorities and the development sector will need to work with government to tackle this ambiguity about the expectations for ‘Growth’, ‘Renewal’ or ‘Protected” zones. The right balance needs to be struck to afford protection where it is required, while not frustrating development.
- Local authority borrowing against future income will unlock development
The ability for local authorities to borrow against projected future income generated from development levy funds to forward-fund infrastructure delivery could have major benefits. The delivery of public transport infrastructure upfront, for example through projects such as the West London Orbital, will remove development uncertainty and will unlock development potential of underutilised brownfield land – a key government objective.
- Where is the necessary compulsory purchase power (CPO) reform?
Complicated land ownership in London forms a barrier to successful regeneration and this is one of the key challenges to how failing town centres are revitalised. While what is proposed in the white paper could deliver huge potential, delivery will be challenging unless the CPO process is transformed. There is little mention of this within the white paper and this should be on the list of questions those in London need to ask when consulting with government.
- Where will plan making power reside?
It is not yet clear where power and responsibilities will lie in London. With central government perceived by some to be reducing the Mayor of London’s influence, how much power will reside with the Mayor, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London? At the opposite end, it is difficult to see how the proposals will allow Neighbourhood Plans to exist in their current form beyond allowing local involvement in the preparation of Design Codes.
As a business, WSP is looking closely at the proposals, engaging with our clients and contributing to the discussion on what is a key issue if we are to create the right places for the future. There are lots of sensible proposals within the white paper and London’s planning and development community should view it with promise.
It helps that some elements of the proposals within the white paper are essentially already in place in London; there are similarities between the proposed ‘Growth’ zones and Opportunity Areas, particularly where Opportunity Area Policy Frameworks have been developed. Many of the proposals are also well-informed, for example the Local Plans process was informed by the 2016 report by the Local Plans Expert Group. This allows for more comprehensive community engagement that reaches a wider, more diverse audience which is crucial to sustainable development.
However, the devil will be in the detail as to how these changes are implemented. The ask of local authorities, many of whom are already challenged by capacity as well as a reprioritisation in light of COVID-19, is very significant. The ball remains in the Government’s court to ensure that once consultation is complete, their commitment is followed through with the necessary investment.
Nick Belsten is London Director, Planning Consultancy at WSP.