Planning reforms met with scepticism as levelling-up bill is tabled

The government has unveiled long-awaited planning reforms as part of its Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

The bill, which runs to 338 pages, was introduced to parliament on 11 May and aims to shake up the planning process, potentially replace section 106 contributions, and change how local areas can manage development within their own boundaries.

The new laws would also include provisions for setting up levelling up “missions” which will specifically aim to “reduce geographical disparities in the United Kingdom” within a stated period of time. The time restrictions are understood to give the government or departments set periods to invest.

Yesterday, levelling-up secretary Michael Gove (pictured) refused to commit to the previous target of building up to 300,000 homes per year. The top-down housing targets had proved to be a thorn in the government’s side in terms of planning, and caused considerable grass-roots opposition from communities. 

The new bill aims to reverse the agenda and allow local communities the opportunity to take charge of their own regeneration through a variety of means. One measure included in the bill is the ability to set up locally-led urban development corporations, whereby a local authority or group of local authorities can request permission from the secretary of state to designate an area of land as a development area.

Commenting on the BBC, Gove said that the bill would help “build communities that people love and are proud of”.

A further aspect of the bill included the provision to restrict the current community infrastructure levy to London and Wales. However, a provision for the imposition of an “infrastructure levy” covering was included in the bill, which serves the same purpose as the CIL.

Jonathan Allen, senior associate at law firm Browne Jacobson, was unimpressed by the initial changes the bill would make to planning in England.

He said: “Despite fanfare on wholesale reform of the planning system, pushback from backbenchers means that most major proposals have either been removed entirely or lack detail to such a level as to be meaningless.

“A prime example are the proposals on a national infrastructure levy. Beyond setting out that the levy will be ‘locally set’ and ‘non-negotiable’, there is no suggestion that the government has an answer to the difficult questions of how such a scheme would work in practice.

Everybody knows the section 106 process can be infuriatingly slow for developers, but the truth is that successive governments have failed to come up with a suitable alternative replacement. They don’t seem to have the answer yet.”

In terms of neighbourhood development plans, the bill states that new plans may include policies which relate to the amount, type, location and timetable for development. The plans will also be able to include details of any infrastructure requirements needed to make a development. 

Commenting on what is dubbed as “street votes” Peter Rainier, principal director of planning at law firm DMH Stallard, said: “The idea of community led regeneration and ‘street votes’ is certainly an interesting one. What it is not is some sort of NIMBY charter, but rather a radical proposal for how residents could through agreement increase housing numbers where they live.

“However, it is difficult to see how increased local involvement will do this. Will residents really be motivated to seek change and regeneration? I doubt it.”

Other changes sought in the bill are amendments to the remit of Homes England to allow the body to also invest in offices and changes to the governance of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). The bill states that the secretary of state may appoint an independent person to carry out a review of the RICS in terms of its governance and effectiveness as an institution in meeting its objectives. The move follows a furore over governance at the body in 2021 that led to the resignations of four of its leadership team.

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