The progress of much in the government’s programme of changes to the planning system depends on the timing of the planning bill, confirmed in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May. The government will respond to the planning white paper consultation in the autumn with the Planning Bill published “as soon as we can thereafter”, housing minister Robert Jenrick announced on 6th July.

Sarah Bevan, planning and development programme director at business group London First, says the government’s messaging “remains consistent … one comprehensive planning bill will be brought forward in the autumn, covering the two pillars of local plans/categories and the infrastructure levy”; other planning white paper proposals not requiring primary legislation, such as on design codes, may be brought forward sooner.

Meanwhile, after consulting on changes to simplify and consolidate permitted development (PD) rights to take account of changes to the Use Classes Order made last year, the government has proposed removing PD rights for various assembly and leisure uses to change use, but making conversion easier for casinos and betting shops. (see below)

Changes to local plans

The new planning bill is intended to ensure local plans “provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different categories of land”, according to the Queen’s Speech briefing document. It says the changes would involve “clear land allocations”, although it stopped short of explicitly setting out the three-zone plan-making system originally proposed in the white paper.

A front-page story in The Times on the eve of the Queen’s Speech said it understood that the measures would see the country “split up into zones marked for growth or protection”, but that ministers were “undecided on adding a third category for regeneration”.

The government “will have to make up its mind soon” on this issue to meet its aim of having a bill ready by autumn, says Sara Hanrahan, a planning partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, who chairs the planning legal stakeholder group that is also liaising with the government.

Developer contributions changes

The government’s proposed new levy to replace existing methods of securing developer contributions in order to make new development acceptable in planning terms is not at all clear.

The Queen’s Speech briefing note said simply that the bill would “replace the existing systems for funding affordable housing and infrastructure from development with a new, more predictable and more transparent levy” – providing less detail than the original white paper proposal, which spoke of replacing the community infrastructure levy (CIL) with a “nationally set, value-based, flat-rate charge”, equal to a fixed proportion of the development’s value, above a yet-to-be-determined threshold.

It also proposed to “sweep away” the current system of section 106 agreements, currently negotiated between planners and developers on a case-by-case basis. The lack of detail “suggests the policy has progressed little since the white paper, and that the government may in fact be rowing back from their previous plans”, said Chris Rumfitt, chief of communications firm Field Consultancy.

Permitted development right extensions

The government laid regulations on 31 March creating a new PDR to enable the change of use from Class E – a broad category for commercial and town centre uses introduced last September – to residential use. This comes into effect from 1 August.

The government has consulted on a new policy for Article 4 Directions, which allow authorities to exclude areas from current residential permitted development (PD) rights, as part of a recent consultation to changes to the NPPF; the consultation proposed that such directions may be made more difficult and “should be restricted to the smallest geographical area possible”.

Other changes to the NPPF and the National Model Design Code

A consultation on draft revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework, including measures to ensure the pursuit of “beauty” in the planning system, encourage more tree-lined streets, and control the removal of statues and other monuments, concluded on 27 March and a revised NPPF has now been published in time for the summer recess. MHCLG has said that “a fuller review of the whole framework is likely to be required in due course.”

The same consultation also sought views on the draft National Model Design Code, intended to steer councils’ production of their own local design guides. The government has recently announced that 14 councils will now take part in a six-month programme to test its use in their area – an exercise which Sarah Bevan says will enable MHCLG to “test the practical implementation of the NMDC in different types of locations”. A final version of the National Model Design Code was published along with the revised NPPF (see Stop Press box).

Environmental assessment revisions

The Queen’s Speech said the government will “use post-Brexit freedoms to simplify and enhance the framework for environmental assessments for developments”– and that this will be addressed through the planning bill. Some have taken the reference to a simplified process as indication that environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments, which apply to individual applications and plans respectively, may be brought into closer alignment, and indeed officials are “definitely looking” at combining the two, according to Paul Miner, head of strategic plans and devolution at the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Meanwhile a consultation on the wider future of the environmental assessment, promised by Defra last July, has yet to see the light of day.

Other policy and legislation changes to look out for

The Environment Bill, still undergoing parliamentary scrutiny and amendment, will “protect nature by mandating ‘biodiversity net gain’ in the planning system”, “will improve planning for nature recovery through Local Nature Recovery Strategies and create Nature Recovery Networks to join up nature sites and create wildlife-rich places” and will “give communities a greater say in the protection of local trees”, the Queen’s Speech said. This will apply to proposals decided by local planning authorities, while the government has confirmed that Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects will “need to provide a net gain in biodiversity and habitats for wildlife, through an amendment to be made to the Environment Bill”.

The planning bill will also deliver “the planning changes that we need to build the 48 hospitals and the schools that we need”, according to communities secretary Robert Jenrick. The government announced at the end of March that it would proceed with its proposed amendments to the permitted development right intended to speed up delivery of public service infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and prisons.

Planning policy changes requiring councils and applicants to provide for a new form of discounted housing for first-time buyers, known as First Homes, came into effect from 28 June, though transitional arrangements will allow a further six months’ grace for draft plans and sites with full and outline permission.

The planning bill is also expected to revise the framework for locally-led development corporations, according to the Queen’s Speech briefing. The government has suggested that corporations may be given broader powers over plan-making and development management, as well as greater access to developer contributions. “It seems likely that the abolition of the duty to cooperate will be included in the planning bill and for development corporations to become more important in the delivery of larger scale development,” Hanrahan said, noting that the government’s response to its technical consultation on development corporation reform “is also still awaited”.

Reiterating a white paper pledge to introduce “map-based” and “interactive” local plans based on “data standards and digital principles”, the Queen’s Speech briefing says one of the “main benefits” of the planning bill would be digitising the system. At the start of June, the government announced funding of £1.1 million for a “pathfinder” programme involving ten local authorities and council partnerships testing digital tools and data standards in their local plan preparation “before more formal proposals are brought forward”.

The government introduced fire safety requirements into the planning system for the first time on 1 August, by amending the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015 and another instrument, to bring fire safety matters – mainly for high-rise residential buildings – into full planning applications, to be known as “Gateway 1”. This will be complementary to Fire Policy D12 of the London Plan, which is actually more wide-ranging as it applies to all London applications. Also the Building Safety Bill, currently wending its way through Parliament, will establish a new Building Safety Regulator (BSR) – expected in due course take over the Health and Safety Executive’s new statutory consultee role on planning applications for high-rise buildings.