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The Planning and Levelling Up Bill – The Headlines

18 May 2022

The Queen's Speech recently announced the Planning and Levelling Up bill with claims that its plans will streamline the planning and environmental assessment process to make regeneration easier, whilst retaining local input and environmental protection. So what are the plans? Haven't we heard these claims before?

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill includes some of the less contentious planning proposals from the recent Levelling Up White Paper and aims to allow local communities greater say over building design, affordable housing and new infrastructure.  Although light on detail at present, it is anticipated that this will involve some key changes to the planning system and environmental assessment process. If this Bill can deliver on the changes needed to the planning system to make it more streamlined whilst retaining local input and environmental protection, they are likely to be welcomed by the property industry.  However, these are not new claims attached to most new planning legislation and the Government's very radical "once in a generation" proposals in its 2020 Planning White Paper to introduce a new planning system proved controversial and have been somewhat watered down or pared back.

Environmental protection

Since Brexit there has been significant talk about how to streamline the environmental assessment and strategic environmental assessment process to reduce delays in the planning system. The Bill states that an ‘Environmental Outcome Report’ will replace the existing EU system of Strategic Environment Assessment (including Sustainability Appraisals) for plans and Environmental Impact Assessment (for projects – including National Significant Infrastructure Projects) such that both plans and projects are assessed against environmental outcomes set by the government, rather than the EU.  This has anticipated for a while and is not particularly revolutionary pending the detail.

Regional decision making

The government is keen to encourage more regional mayors. The Bill will lay a pathway for parts of England to negotiate a devolution deal by 2030, with the aim to give local leaders the power to drive improvement in their communities, including providing more control over budgets, transport and skills. The sentiment will be very much welcomed if the reality results in more joined up strategic local decision making.

New regeneration tools

The Bill aims to add more tools to deliver regeneration, make better use of brownfield land and reinvigorate high streets. Apart from giving local authorities the ability to fill vacant commercial property, via high street rental auctions, there is also mention of strengthened compulsory purchase powers and to make it easier to establish locally-led development corporations. A new locally-set infrastructure levy is also proposed that will be in addition to the current CIL system. This new levy will be designed to capture more of the financial value gain generated by development and there is potential for the abolition of s106 agreements – however practitioners probably have their doubts that complete removal is achievable or sensible.

More say for local residents

The Bill states that the planning system will be reformed to give residents more involvement in local development and to ensure that local development is accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing. The details of how this will be achieved are limited at present and it is not clear if any of the more controversial ideas from the Planning White Paper will find their way into the reforms, although the controversial ‘zoning’ rules seem to have been abandoned.  It is unclear how the detail will really drive substantive change and must balance the real need to better deliver much needed housing, economic growth, infrastructure and energy security.

Strengthened protection for historic assets

Measures are proposed in the Bill to strengthen the protection of the historic environment. The statutory protection in the planning system over listed building and conservation areas is to be extended to other categories of designated heritage assets, including scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens, World Heritage Site and registered battlefields. Also, proposed are strengthened powers to issue Urgent Works Notices by allowing them to be applied to occupied listed buildings and providing provision to add a local land charge to title deeds to allow local authority cost recovery for works.  It is unclear whether these changes will really move the dial beyond already good and best practice.

The mooted changes to the UK planning and regeneration system will not be achieved under this Bill alone and changes to other regulations, national policy and guidance will need to support the Bill. Given the general resistance that is met to most planning reforms, it will be interesting to watch the progress of this Bill and to see how much ends up in the final Act as this progresses though parliament where watering down can often limit effectiveness or degree of change.  The tone and nature of proposed changes under Gove do not appear to have the same radical connotations of the more heavily pitched "once in a generation" Planning White Paper.  A number of the intentions behind the changes are not new and have been around for a while – particularly s106 reform. Perhaps the government has learned that the prospect of planning change does not seem to fair well under the swell of controversy that it generated in 2020 and so perhaps this is more a classic case of not judging a book by its cover and we may be surprised by the eventual outcome. 

It is anticipated that the Bill, if successful, will come into force during 2024 to allow time for secondary legislation to be enacted.

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