One of the most important bits of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill heading through Parliament are the changes it proposes to the planning system. These changes might sound technical, but they actually lay the basis for big improvements to the planning system and are a chance to achieve a significant supply-side reform.
If successful, they will make life easier for local authorities, make planning more certain and less confrontational for residents, and actually deliver more homes alongside the infrastructure they require. However, if these proposals don’t make it through Parliament into law, then the Levelling Up Bill will fail to address not just England’s housing crisis but also the political conflict generated by our gummed-up planning system.
England’s planning system is unpredictable, fragmented, and slow
There are three relevant problems with the current system in England:
First, it is too uncertain and discretionary. This makes the housing crisis worse and the system unpredictable for everyone, including existing residents. Proposals to build on particular sites can be “defeated” on technicalities, only to then return several years later, damaging trust in the planning process.
Second, national government is not a proper referee of the system. As Centre for Cities has shown previously, there is not a clear divide between local and national responsibilities in the planning system, with local plans often running to hundreds of pages as they duplicate national policy while also struggling to set out clear local policy to solve local problems.
Third, many places are failing to agree local plans. York is the most famous example of this, having not agreed one since 1954, but currently only 42 per cent of Local Planning Authorities have up-to-date local plans. This damages local housing supply, but also the ability of the council to provide infrastructure and certainty in the planning process.
The Levelling Up Bill will make England’s planning system more rules-based and predictable
Two sets of changes are proposed under Clauses 83 and 84 of the Levelling Up Bill:
First, local policy that duplicates national policy is to be removed from local plans. This is a common problem, especially when slight differences in phrasing mean that policies written with similar intent do not have precisely the same meaning.
Second, national policy is to be given much stronger weighting when making decisions on planning applications. The national guidance will now matter as much in local planning decisions as rules contained in the local plan, and applications to develop land now must comply with both local and national policy except under extreme circumstances.
The sum of these changes (sometimes described in commentary around the Bill as the National Development Management Policies) is that local plans will deal with local problems, and national policy will deal with national problems. It is the logical next step after the creation of the National Planning Policy Framework a decade ago, which consolidated 1,500 pages of national guidance into a single 60-page rulebook for developers, local authorities, and residents to use.
The changes will make the planning system simpler and stronger
In practice, the Levelling Up Bill’s changes mean that local authorities will have a smaller number of rules to enforce, but greater ability to enforce them.
To give an example – local plans today often set out local policy to tackle climate change. Since climate change is a national and global problem though, these clauses often have lots of duplication and contradiction of policy elsewhere. As a result, developments that may pass carbon policy in one local authority will be rejected in others; while places which reject proposals on climate grounds are likely to be subject to an appeal due to contradictions with national policy.
It’s not just climate change. This type of duplication of policies is very common, and part of why local plans in England today are 500-page checklists, rather than map-based strategies that set out where development of varying types can and cannot take place.
Under the new system however, planning policy on climate change (and other national issues) will be simpler and more consistent across England, as duplication will be removed and national policy will be weighted appropriately. This does not mean it will be “one size fits all” – when appropriate national policy could set parameters on metrics (e.g. cycling infrastructure) that then leave room for local authorities to adopt the approach that suits local needs.
Planning will become much more certain for everyone involved. Developers will know that for the trickiest things, they face the same set of rules wherever they go to build. Local authorities will be able to focus on making sure developers get the local elements right, whether that’s infrastructure, or social housing, or public services. It is town planning as it is meant to be – solving problems rather than creating them.
Greater certainty in planning is good for local authorities, local residents, and new homes
Combined with noises from central government that the role of housing targets is likely to diminish if the Bill is passed, the quid pro quo for councils is clear: if local authorities can agree local plans, then central government will get off local government’s back.
The stronger role of local plans will increase both the responsibility of local authorities and certainty for residents. Residents will now know that if a local plan is agreed, development will happen in specific locations, be joined up with infrastructure (using the new Infrastructure Levy and the infrastructure delivery strategies that the Bill also contains), and that there is less chance of successful appeals by developers when planning permission is denied.
This will reduce conflict in the day-to-day planning process and ensure that more homes are built in appropriate locations, with greater consent by residents. Local plans will become much more effective tools of local government, while becoming shorter and easier to update, with less onerous evidence and policy requirements. Councils will likewise have strong grounds to reject speculative proposals that do not comply with local and national planning policy.
Of course, central government will have to uphold its end of the bargain, by absorbing some of the more difficult and controversial policy areas to make it easier for local authorities to agree local plans. However, local authorities that fail to agree local plans will leave themselves open to speculative development and a risky appeals process, because they will have omitted their responsibility to provide clear leadership for their local area.
Government must deliver on the Levelling Up Bill’s supply-side reforms
In its planning changes, the Levelling Up Bill proposes a classic supply-side reform. Muddled Government waste and red-tape is to be cut and replaced with clear rules that increase certainty for private businesses, the public, and the state itself.
As further planning changes will likely be off the table for the rest of this Parliament, the Levelling Up Bill is the last and best chance for this Government to leave a positive and permanent legacy in housing. Clauses 83 and 84 of the Levelling Up Bill must pass into law, or the Government’s housing strategy will flop.