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Communities promised ‘greater voice’ in planning proposals as gov't hints at major policy reversal.

Updated: May 22, 2023

The House of Lords’ Built Environment Committee (BEC) has published its findings in the inquiry into ‘Meeting the UK’s Housing Demand’.

The report is particularly damning in its assessment of the impact of delays to planning reforms, which continue to create uncertainty for housebuilders and planners. The planning system requires ‘urgent reform’ at every level of government, explains committee-chair Baroness Neville-Rolfe. At present, fewer than half of local authorities have an up-to-date local plan and ‘the absence of a clear policy direction has only exacerbated housing problems’. The report also highlights skills shortages that are pervasive throughout the sector, as well as the sharp decline in SME housebuilders. 39% of houses were built by SME housebuilders in 1988, compared to only 10% in 2020.

In September The Times reported that the government was to rip up its controversial proposals to overhaul the planning application process. The proposals would have introduced ‘zoning’ to the UK’s planning system, and curtailed homeowners’ ability to object to new housing developments. Under these measures, councils would also be issued mandatory house-building targets. However, backlash from Conservative MPs in southern England and their voters (planning reform is frequently cited as a key reason behind the Tory loss of Chesham & Amersham in the 2021 by-election) caused the Department for Levelling Up to start trimming down its intended reforms.

Evidence submitted to the BEC between September-November 2021 offers our first glimpse of how these amended plans are taking shape. In his oral evidence Minister for Housing Christopher Pincher repeatedly describes the importance of creating a planning system that ‘for all players is much more transparent’. In fact, Pincher implies that the fact only 2-3% of local communities get involved in individual planning applications is insufficient and sets out measures to ensure a ‘more engaging’ planning process for all. Key to this will be a digital-led streamlining of the planning process, making it more accessible to the public through map-based plans and – crucially – eliminating many of the administrative tasks that currently weigh down planners.

More concretely, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s written evidence for the inquiry promises to ‘give communities a greater voice’ and ‘a more meaningful say on the development schemes which affect them, not less’. Suggesting a complete reversal of its position on consulting the local community on new housing developments, the report states:

Our planning reforms aim to create a system with effective local engagement at its heart, with community views central to decisions about the location and design of development through the preparation of local plans and design codes, and by continuing to require consultation on the details of development proposals as they come forward.

There will be a continuing role for public consultation as part of the planning application process. Even where the broad principle of development is agreed through the plan, all the details would still need to be consulted on with communities and statutory consultees, and approved by officers or committees where appropriate.

As yet with no statutory force, the policies alluded to in the evidence submitted by the Department for Levelling Up to the House of Lords’ inquiry give us a taste of what’s to come. The government’s response is anticipated by March 2022. The results of the 2020 consultation on the ‘Planning for the future’ White Paper, in which the planning reforms were first proposed, are also forthcoming.

It would seem, however, the more than 44,000 respondents to the White Paper consultation have persuaded the government that, when it comes to planning, the public wants its voice heard.

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