Major planning reforms announced in Queen’s speech

As expected, the Queen's speech on 11 May unveiled far-reaching changes to the UK's planning system. 

The Queen's speech is the official reopening of Parliament for the next session, and is used to announce the government's key priorities for the coming year. This time round, changes to the planning system were high up the agenda. These reforms represent the most significant alterations to our planning laws in more than half a century, and have delighted and alarmed different interest groups in equal measure.

What are the main proposed changes?

The new laws have been a long time in the making, and have included extensive research projects such as the ‘Living with Beauty’ report. The government set out its stall with the 'Planning for the Future' white paper last summer, and this latest announcement clarifies its intent to push forward with the reforms.

Much of our current planning legislation dates from the late 1940s, with various bits bolted on over the years until the whole lot has become thoroughly dated and unwieldy. The aim of the new proposals is to drastically simplify these processes, while also making good on Conservative pledges to build 300,000 new homes a year.

The biggest change is that local authorities will now be required to designate areas for ‘growth’, in which planning permission will automatically be granted in most circumstances. They will also need to allocate areas for ‘renewal’ and lastly for ‘protection’.

As you’d expect, digitisation is also a major part of the reforms, and this is meant to increase community engagement with the local development plans at an earlier stage, so that existing residents have better opportunities to influence the way their areas develop.

Other adjustments to funding and quality standards were also mentioned, and there are also proposals for a ten-point design code to improve design and aesthetic standards. However, we won’t get down to the detail of this until the text of the bill is officially debated.

How might these changes improve things?

The changes will drastically reduce the ability of existing local residents to challenge development plans. 

We all know that we need more housing, but the so-called ‘NIMBY’ effect (‘not in my back yard’) means we usually want these developments to be somewhere else. Any new development – particularly if it’s on a greenfield site that hasn’t previously been developed – is almost certain to see concerted local opposition which makes it expensive and time-consuming to build new houses. 

It currently takes an average of five years for a new development to get planning permission, and some argue that this disadvantages smaller, more community-minded developers. The major housebuilders have deep enough pockets that they can afford the delays and court battles, meaning that prospective sites end up being developed into the kinds of unattractive identikit estates that the NIMBYs are so opposed to in the first place. The hope with the new rules is that the reduced development costs will allow more sympathetic developers like local housing trusts, smaller firms and even self-builders to get in on the action, and should lead to a rise in developments that genuinely prioritise affordable and well-designed housing for people living and working in the local area.  

Increased local engagement should also help to reduce NIMBYism by getting buy-in from local communities. Under the current system, local residents often feel steamrollered by developers and let down by planners, but it's hoped that giving them more power to influence plans at an earlier stage (before the developers are even involved) should make them more sympathetic to housebuilding.

What are the concerns about the changes?

The basic principle of making it quicker and easier to build housing developments and supermarkets on greenfield sites has understandably caused alarm among many people, particularly countryside campaign groups and residents. Nightmare scenarios of suburban sprawl and unregulated development abound, and there’s not really been enough detail yet about the checks and balances that will protect our countryside and environment. 

Another concern is that there is much more focus on ‘growth’ than ‘renewal’, and that by forcing rural councils to allocate land for deregulated development, we’ll be steering developers away from the urban regeneration that’s vital for the future of our cities – while simultaneously reducing our green spaces.

Fundamentally, there’s a worry that the whole plan is based too heavily on short-term political expediency, revolving as it does around the simple goal of increasing housing figures, rather than taking in the full complexity of infrastructure and the built environment.      

What next?

The problem with trying to judge the proposals at this stage is that they still need to be refined, clarified and properly debated.

The bill is expected to go before Parliament in the autumn, and we can expect a lot of robust to and fro before it becomes law. Tens of thousands of people fed back on the initial consultation about the proposed reforms (now closed), and many MPs will be in a tricky situation. The changes have been partly calculated to appeal to residents in the ‘new Tory’ seats that they won off Labour in the last election – predominantly in the post-industrial North of England and the Midlands where the lack of decent and affordable housing stock is a major concern. However, there’s likely to be significant opposition in more traditionally ‘true blue’ rural areas that may not like the idea of it being easier for the diggers to move in on their green fields.  

Balancing the competing concerns will be key to the bill’s success and eventual form, so it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves before it finally becomes law.