With the Prime Minister promising the most radical reform of the planning system since WW2, Planning Partner, Mike Jones, asks if we need more haste and less speed.
We are not at War, but the Covid-19 pandemic has posed some significant challenges over the past few months for planning. This has resulted in a raft of changes, such as last week’s introduction of the Business & Planning Bill and changes to Permitted Development Rights. We now have the promise of yet more change and a further step of measures to get construction going, quickly.
More than ever, it is essential that reform is clear and precise and not simply rushed through, as this could cause more confusion and delay, which is the last thing Planning needs right now.
There is some welcome action to assist with flexibility during social distancing and the implications of lockdown, including additional allowance of temporary uses, a route to flexible variations to construction hours and extending the life of planning permissions expired or due to expire before the end of the year.
The controversy of the ‘Prior Approval’ process continues with new rights to extend flats upwards by adding additional storeys, whereas the long debate over windowless office to residential conversions has been addressed in part with new criteria for the allowance of adequate natural light.
These changes will likely see less commercial to residential conversions under the prior approval system but will ensure better quality living environments; albeit not to national space standards. The question will be whether the opportunity to extend flatted scheme will be practically taken up to increase housing opportunities quicker than via planning applications.
We knew change was coming back in March, when the world was in a very different place, with the ‘Planning for the Futures’ paper, which hinted at a Spring White Paper setting out planning reform.
We can now expect this reform to be outlined in a July White Paper with a multitude of change on the horizon commencing from this September. We can expect the funding for high streets, town centres and rail projects alongside the pledge for substantial woodland tree planting and enhanced access to fibre optic broadband.
There is also a clear focus on net zero targets and the role Science & Tech and renewable energy will play in achieving this and leading economic recovery.
To the purists the devil will always be in the detail (or lack of it) and therefore some of the more ‘technical’ implications cover the following changes:
- Certain types of commercial premises have flexibility to be repurposed without requiring a change of use planning application to be defined through a reform of the Use Classes Order.
- Wider range of the change of use of commercial properties to residential use without the requirement of planning permission.
- Removal of requirement of planning permission for demolition and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings, when re-built as homes.
- Householders ability to extend properties upwards via a fast track prior approval process, subject to consultation.
There will be very few in our industry that didn’t feel planning required modernisation and certainly that the system could be clearer with less delay. However, reform needs time to adapt, including investment and training, especially within the public sector. History tells us that changes such as that mooted above will come with their own complications of interpretation and implementation, when rushed through.
Last year Bidwells, in conjunction with Perkins and Will and Blackstock Consulting, delivered to government a Radical Regeneration Manifesto, which included recommendations of reform including changes to the planning system. It’s refreshing to see many of these may feature within the White Paper, namely bringing the Use Classes Order kicking and screaming into the 21st Century and the repurposing of redundant property.
A change is as good as a rest but we need to ensure that there is a ‘balance’ between better, beautiful and greener, as well as speed and of course recovery, if we are to maintain the objective of truly sustainable development.