Major planning overhaul at centre of government’s agenda for the year

Sweeping reforms to planning laws were at the centre of today’s Queen’s Speech as the government set out its agenda for what could be a watershed year for the construction industry.

Queens Speech 2021

The pared-back event saw just over 70 people hear the Queen outline the government’s upcoming legislation plans in the House of Lords

The Planning Reform Bill is now set to be brought before parliament this autumn and is expected to include proposals to scrap Section 106 agreements and replace it with a new Infrastructure Levy.

It will also introduce new design codes and force councils to zone land for “growth”, “protection” or “renewal”, with land labelled for growth getting automatic outline planning permission. Councils will be unable to reject applications which accord with local rules.

The Queen’s Speech said the government plans to press ahead with the reforms despite objections from environmental groups.

Ministers have been reported to believe the reforms are the best way to boost home ownership, which is seen as a factor in the Conservative party’s electoral success in the ‘red wall’ of former Labour seats over the past two years.

Assael Architecture managing director Pete Ladhams welcomed the proposals, saying that the current system was “urgently in need of an overhaul”.

He said automatic approval in areas zoned as growth will allow architects to “respond to the urgent needs of towns and cities swiftly”, adding that it will “greatly increase” the government’s chances of hitting its target to build 300,000 homes a year.

And Steven Charlton, managing director of Perkins & Will’s London studio, said the government had taken ”bold steps” towards resetting the way in which the planning system can help deliver sustainable economic growth.

“The new zoning rules not only simplifies the system but should also accelerate planning for the development of knowledge clusters, for data-driven, creative, or high-technology industries which will be vital to the economic recovery and growth in the post-covid period,” he said.

RIBA president Alan Jones said: “Poorly resourced and mismanaged planning imposes permanent damage on our communities, environment and economy; I therefore welcome today’s promise to progress reforms to the planning system. But reforms cannot be used as an impulsive means to boost housing numbers at the expense of quality.

Alan Jones

Alan Jones

“We urgently need well-designed, safe and sustainable homes and spaces that support and strengthen communities. This relies on utilising the expertise of architects from the outset, and taking tougher action against developers who fail to raise their game.”

He also welcomed other bills announced in the speech including the Building Safety Bill and the introduction of the Professional Qualifications Bill, which he said would “pave the way for post-Brexit agreements that are critical to the strength and success of the UK architects’ profession”.

But his predecessor as president, Ben Derbyshire, who is chair of housing architect HTA Design, disagreed, saying: “I fear it is a big mistake to tear up the planning rule book.

”The planning and architectural professions seem to have been cast as opponents in the planning reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech and, worse still, local planning authorities are apparently seen as obstacles to be swept aside.

”If we are to cut bureaucracy in the local planning process then it must not come at a cost of denying the opportunity for legitimate democratic control. What No 10 characterises as ‘group think’ among the professions is in fact evidence-based advice to consider quality more widely than physical appearance alone.”

Referring to the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, he added: ”A ‘Fast Track to Beauty’ still needs to live up to the obligations set out in the NPPF for design quality in the widest sense. Instead of ‘permitted development’ on a grand scale, we need resources to enable more and better proactive planning in local authorities if we are to deliver enough homes of the quality that this country desperately needs to genuinely build back better.”

Response by Architects Climate Action Network

Joe Giddings, ACAN’s campaigns coordinator, said: “The government’s proposed planning reforms are an absolute nightmare, being brought forward by the worst possible government, at the worst possible time. They will result in housing developments popping up all over the country unchecked and unregulated. These proposals must not be implemented, until the Building Regulations are significantly upgraded to tackle embodied carbon emissions, and unless there are major environmental protections locked into the new system ”

The group issued a statement saying:

The planning reforms, which will remove democratic oversight from individual planning applications, will create a free-for-all for developers that will inevitably lead to irreversible damage being caused to the country’s wildlife and biodiversity. Furthermore, by streamlining development without adequate environmental protections laid out in Building Regulations, these reforms will increase activity that contributes towards climate change, as embodied carbon emissions will remain unchecked.

- The proposals have not proceeded beyond consultation stage. MHCLG is yet to release the outcome of its public consultation on the Planning For The Future white paper, launched in August 2020. The level of criticism at the time, from organisations and industry bodies including RIBA, RTPI and TCPA, as well as from many of the Conservative Party’s own MPs, suggests that the proposals need significant revision before being presented to parliament.

- The proposals are getting worse. The Times is reporting the government is scrapping the “renewal” categorisation, making all land either zoned for “growth” or “protection”. This will lead to more land zoned for “growth”, with planning permission automatically granted, this will have devastating effects on communities, ecosystems and the climate.

- Why is this important? Identifying land for ‘renewal’ would place value on the existing buildings and infrastructure within a place, while emphasising the need to work with and improve what we have. In response to the climate crisis the government should look to renewal as a key tool for lowering emissions, protecting communities, conserving resources and reducing waste.