Overview of Changes to Planning Policy and the Planning System - June 2016There have been many changes since the Conservative government won the General Election in May 2015 and were no longer constrained by coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Since then, the emphasis has been upon speeding up the planning process. Relatively speaking, the new planning system is characterised by being market-led rather than plan-led and there is an emphasis upon facilitating rapid house-building. The target is to get a million new homes built, precipitated by a major housing shortage due to population growth, and spiralling house prices, with problems particularly great in London and the South East. There has been an emphasis upon prosperity and production, as detailed in the September 2015 HM Treasury Document, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation. This document has implications for house-building, infrastructure, and economic development. Overall there has been a move towards a developer-led rather than plan-led system, with little time for a more strategic approach to land-use planning. Many of these policy changes are seen as a challenge to ensuring environmental sustainability, reducing urban sprawl and protecting the green belt.
Home-ownership is a key aspect of the programme set out by the Conservatives, with priority given to Starter Homes for first-time buyers. There is also a continuing emphasis upon Self-build housing, which was introduced under the 2015 Self-Build and Housebuilding Act. ‘Affordable housing’ is now to be delivered primarily through subsidised owner-occupation, rather than through ‘council housing’ or other social-sector rented property. In this vein, a new ‘right to buy’ for housing association tenants has been introduced, similar to Mrs Thatcher’s right to buy council housing in the 1980s, which has thus removed one of the remaining means of providing social housing for those in need. Private-rented housing has however also been encouraged, and there has been major expansion of the ‘buy to let’ market as a form of investment. The private-rented sector is likely therefore to be greater than the owner-occupied sector in the future, as house prices have become too expensive, even for young middle-class households.
Local planning authorities have been adversely affected by an overall decline in public sector and local government investment, and government cut-backs and a general ‘balancing of the books’ have particularly affected social and community programmes. In spite of receiving less resources, these local planning authorities that have not produced Local Plans (the new form of Development Plan) which they are required to do under the 2011 Localism Act, which show housing targets and in light of which land is allocated for housing. This may potentially mean that these local planning authorities could have their planning powers removed and replaced with central government control. Local planning authorities are also required to keep a register of brownfield land, which will tie in with the new powers of the Secretary of State (central government) to grant ‘planning permission in principle’ for housing sites identified in these registers, especially those on brownfield sites. ‘Permission in principle’ will therefore give "automatic" permission to housing schemes on identified sites subject to provisions identified in a Development Order.
At the local authority level therefore, planners have reduced powers ‘to plan’ or to exert ‘control’ over development and developers. Meanwhile central government has increased its own powers in respect of major development schemes, with priority being given for example to major infrastructure development under the 2015 Infrastructure Act. Traditional town planning is, arguably, being leap-frogged over at the local level, in order to rush through new infrastructural projects such as new rail building such as HS2 in the North and Cross Rail in London, the new Thames Tideway super sewer tunnel through London, and major airport expansion. Such projects have major spatial implications across large sectors of the country, but there has not been a return to regional level planning.