The future of the planning system in England Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Our current planning system

1.We are concerned about the lack of detail in respect of the proposed reforms to the planning system, which has made it very difficult to assess the possible practical implications of many of the reforms. The Government should consult on the details of proposed reforms to prevent unintended consequences and harms resulting from them. Given the complexity of the issues, and the possibility that its contents will differ from the proposals contained in the White Paper, the Planning Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech should be brought forward in a draft form, and be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. We stand ready to undertake such scrutiny. (Paragraph 16)

The Government’s three areas proposal

2.The lack of details about the three areas approach has made it difficult to assess how it would function. Our evidence has suggested there are problems with the three areas proposal. These have included its potential unsuitability in urban areas; doubts over whether Local Plans will have the level of detail for developers to know whether their proposals will qualify for permission in principle and avoid using planning permission procedures; the uncertainty over the purposes of renewal areas; and the level of protection to be afforded in protected areas. Overall, we are unpersuaded the Government’s zoning-based approach will produce a quicker, cheaper, and democratic planning system. The Government should reconsider the case for the three areas proposal. Any new proposals can be considered in detail if the Planning Bill is published in draft form and we undertake pre-legislative scrutiny, as we recommend. (Paragraph 32)

3.If after reconsideration the Government does continue with the three areas approach, we recommend that as a minimum:

4.We were concerned to hear from organisations related to electricity, nuclear and water infrastructure about the challenges posed by the Government’s proposed reforms. The Government should explain how it sees vital infrastructure being affected by its proposals. This should include whether there would be special designations for such infrastructure and whether it will be possible to comment on different specific infrastructure proposals. It should also explain how infrastructure providers will be able to comment on and influence emerging proposals for specific projects. (Paragraph 34)

Local Plans

5.We welcome the Government’s proposal that having an up to date Local Plan should be a statutory requirement on local authorities. We also welcome the proposal that Local Plans should be more focused and shorter. But we do not agree that the 30-month timeframe proposed for the development of Local Plans is enough to ensure high quality. We are particularly concerned about the challenges the proposal poses for statutory consultees, especially as all plans will have to be addressed within the same timeframe. The Government should extend the 30-month timeframe for the initial production of Local Plans as it is too short for creating new plans from scratch. The Government must ensure that statutory consultees have time to comment on Local Plans. The Government should consider a staggered roll-out of the new types of Local Plans across the country. It should be permissible and straightforward to undertake quick updates of Local Plans every two years, including with appropriate time for public consultation. The Government should consider the case for confirming that the National Grid is a statutory consultee in new Local Plans. (Paragraph 45)

6.We sympathise with the Government’s wish to enhance the importance of Local Plans in determining where development should take place. But achieving public acceptance of any increased importance for Local Plans requires them have credibility as an accurate reflection of public views in an area. Therefore, we were concerned by evidence that the second stage of public involvement, at the end of the Local Plan process, would happen simultaneously with the Plan being submitted to the Secretary of State. The Government should clarify how it will promote greater involvement by the public in Local Plans. The public should be consulted about a draft version of the Local Plan before, not concurrently with, its submission to the Secretary of State. This would enable their views to be more effective in influencing the final version of the plan. The Government should also be very cautious about watering down the ‘right to be heard’. (Paragraph 46)

7.Increasing the speed at which Local Plans are developed and updating them will be resource hungry. The Government needs to clarify how such needs can be met and what resources will be applied to local authorities to enable them to achieve these ambitious timescales. (Paragraph 47)

8.We recognise the value of neighbourhood plans. They should have a significant role in the development of new Local Plans. To be effective they need to be up-to-date and representative of the whole community and a clear part of the new framework. Local authorities and existing neighbourhood forums need to strive to ensure a representative range of voices are heard in the production of neighbourhood plans, and there should be a timeframe for producing and revising them to ensure they remain relevant. Ahead of the Planning Bill, the Government must clarify the role and status of neighbourhood plans in the proposed system. The Government should consider how to make the neighbourhood planning more relevant to local people and how to ensure that residents feel empowered to both contribute to and own the plan. (Paragraph 52)

9.The duty to cooperate between local authorities has operated imperfectly. However, we heard strong agreement there needed to be more cooperation between local authorities and that sub-national planning was a weakness of the current system. The Government should only abolish the duty to cooperate when more effective mechanisms have been put in place to ensure cooperation. Whilst the duty to cooperate remains in place, the Government should give combined authorities the statutory powers to oversee the cooperation of local authorities in their area. Longer-term reforms could include greater use of joint plans, of plans overseen by mayors and combined authorities, and of development corporations. The Government should seek to apply the lessons from successful strategic plans devised by local authorities in certain parts of the country in devising more effective mechanisms for strategic planning. (Paragraph 61)

Public engagement

10.The Government must commission research about the extent of public involvement in the planning system. This should precede the collection from local authorities and publishing of statistics about public involvement in Local Plans and in individual planning applications. Such research would give a clearer picture of the current situation and, in particular, at which point in the process people are most engaged. (Paragraph 76)

11.We support enhancing public involvement with Local Plans. However, figures cited by the Minister suggest that far more people are involved at the point when individual planning applications are considered than at the local plan stage, and this was backed up by the evidence we have received. We also fear that people will resort to legal measures if they cannot comment upon and therefore influence an individual planning proposal. Therefore, all individuals must still be able to comment and influence upon all individual planning proposals. (Paragraph 77)

12.It is disappointing that local councillors were not mentioned in the White Paper. They have a key role to play in both Local Plans and individual planning applications We recommend that the Government set out how the valuable role of local councillors will be maintained in the planning system. (Paragraph 78)

13.We welcome the greater use of digital technology in the planning system. But we recognise the need to ensure those lacking access can know about and participate in the planning process. The Minister suggested that the existing statutory notices on local newspapers and on lampposts would become a matter of discretion for local authorities. We do not agree with this approach. It risks creating a postcode lottery as to whether such notices continue. This would disadvantage those residing in financially stretched councils and those moving into local authorities where such practices have been discontinued. The existing statutory notices should be retained for all local authorities, to be used alongside technology. We propose the use of virtual participation in planning meetings continue alongside in-person meetings after the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. We also propose that local authorities should experiment with novel ways of engaging the public with the wider planning system, for instance through the use of citizens assemblies. (Paragraph 88)

The housing formula

14.We support the principle of using a standard method that applies across the country. We recognise there has been criticism of the current standard method for not promoting levelling up by reducing the targets for future homes below the numbers currently being delivered. It also does not directly consider brownfield sites nor environmental and other constraints on developable land in a particular area. (Paragraph 110)

15.We think the Government’s abandonment of its proposed formula for determining housing need is the correct decision. There remains a need for additional information about how the Government’s revised approach, announced in December 2020, might work in practice. This is especially important given the proposed urban uplift for 20 urban centres The Government should:

16.In addition:

How to deliver new homes

17.We echo the Public Accounts Committee’s calls for greater clarity on how the Government will deliver its ambition for 300,000 housing units a year, and why this target was chosen. Our previous reports have endorsed the need for additional social and specialist housing. But the scepticism voiced by some about the validity of the 300,000 units target, particularly given the revisions to household projections, deserves a clear answer. There is also scepticism that the target can be delivered. The Government should publish the evidential basis for its 300,000 housing units a year target and set out how this target will be achieved, both by tenure and by location. (Paragraph 116)

18.It is our view is that the pace of completing planning permissions is too slow, and that carrots and sticks are needed to quicken the pace. The Government should produce a strategy for increasing the extent of multi-tenure construction on large sites in line with the Letwin Review’s recommendations. It should explore the greater use of Development Corporations that are transparent and accountable, alongside incentivising the use of smaller sites and SME builders. We also recommend introducing, in the first instance, time limits for the completion of construction and non-financial penalties where those limits are exceeded without good cause. The Government should set a limit of 18 months following discharge of planning conditions for work to commence on site. If work has not progressed to the satisfaction of the Local Planning Authority then the planning permission may be revoked. An allowance of a further 18 months should be allowed for development to be completed, after which the local authority should be able, taking account of the size and complexity of the site, and infrastructure to be completed by other parties, to levy full council tax for each housing unit which has not been completed. (Paragraph 129)

19.We support ensuring that the additional housing being built includes affordable and social housing. There should also be support and encouragement for local authorities to deliver specialist housing, particularly for elderly and people with disabilities. The Government should create a C2R class for retirement communities to ensure clarity in the planning process. There should be a statutory obligation that Local Plans identify sites for specialist housing. We repeat our recommendation in our 2020 social housing report that the Government should publish annual net addition targets for the following tenures over the next ten years: social rent, affordable rent, intermediate rent and affordable homeownership. (Paragraph 136)

20.We heard concerns about the Government’s First Homes programme, especially its potential impact on the provision of other forms of affordable housing. First Homes has an important part to play in delivering homeownership, and we hope that the Government has learnt the lessons of the failure of the Starter Homes programme and the need for the 25% price reduction to remain in perpetuity. But the Government must also ensure that its First Homes programme does not reduce incentives for other types of affordable housing—in particular the delivery of shared ownership properties or social housing. We recommend that the Government lay out its timetable for when First Homes will become available. To reflect the needs for different types of affordable housing in different areas, local authorities should have discretion over what proportion of houses built under Section 106 agreements must be First Homes. (Paragraph 139)

21.We welcome the additional funding for brownfield sites outlined in the Comprehensive Spending Review. In our engagement activities with the public it was clear there was support for prioritising brownfield locations and unhappiness at the perception this was not taking place. This in turn nurtured wider hostility to the 300,000-housing unit target. It is important that the public has confidence in the Government commitment to brownfield sites, but also understands why those sites alone are insufficient to deliver their target. Accordingly, the Government should publish the evidence showing why the level of house building that could be supported by brownfield sites alone are insufficient to delivering the required homes. The Government must also explain why the proportion of new residential address created on previously developed land has fallen in recent years. In addition, Local Plans should be able to prioritise the use of brownfield sites for development ahead of other sites. (Paragraph 144)


22.We agree that the Government’s proposals omitted important issues that should be considered in any changes to the planning system. This was particularly true of the lack of consideration of non-housing issues. Different aspects of the planning system cannot be compartmentalised in this way. Housing cannot be treated in isolation from wider infrastructure, economic, leisure, and environmental activities and considerations. Therefore, in advance of a Planning Bill, the Government should include within consultations the expected impact of its proposed reforms to the planning system on:

Land capture and the funding of infrastructure

23.We were disappointed that very little progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of our predecessor committee’s report into land value capture. The Government’s response to our social housing report did not engage with our renewed recommendations about reforming the Land Compensation Act 1961, and the promised consultation in the response for autumn 2020 has not appeared. We call upon the Government to act upon the whole range of recommendations in our predecessor committee’s Land Value Capture report. (Paragraph 154)

24.The Government must clarify how it will replicate the binding nature of Section 106 agreements and which parts of the approach will be retained. If they cannot be easily replicated, especially without creating additional complexity, then we recommend retaining Section 106 agreements. (Paragraph 161)

25.There is a case for reforming the Community Infrastructure Levy, but it is less clear that Section 106 agreements needed replacing. The Government should be mindful of the cumulative effect of the challenges posed to affordable housing provision by the proposed abolition of Section 106, the raising of the threshold for small sites exempt from affordable housing, and the expansion of permitted development rights. We also welcome the Government’s decision in April 2021 not to proceed with a higher threshold for exemption from having to provide affordable housing to sites of forty or fifty dwellings. The Government should reconsider the proposals of the 2017 review of the Community Infrastructure Levy as an alternative to their national Infrastructure Levy. If the Government does proceed with its Infrastructure Levy proposal, a localised rate should be set reflecting local land values. The Government needs to clarify who will set these localised rates, and whether these will differ by local authority or some other sub-national area. The Government must guarantee there will be no reduction in the amount of affordable housing, including social housing, being delivered as a result of their proposed changes. The Government must recognise that the Levy will not raise enough money to pay for all infrastructure, especially large scale sub-regional and regional investments across much of the country. Further inequalities will need to be addressed through redistribution of Levy funds and through increases in infrastructure spending from central Government. We also recommend leaving the Mayoral Infrastructure Levies in place. (Paragraph 176)

Resources and skills

26.There is a clear need for additional resources for local planning authorities and this was reflected in evidence from a wide range of sectors. The reduction in their funding is slowing down the workings of the planning system. The Government’s proposed reforms will require additional specialist skills, for example in areas such as design, on top of the existing resource pressures faced by the planning system. The Royal Town Planning Institute estimated that £500 million over four years was needed in additional funding. We therefore welcome the additional funding provided at the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the Minister’s assurance that this is only the start. The pressures on the system will only increase if the Government proceeds with its reforms, including the thirty-month timeframe for Local Plans, at the same time as LPAs have to continue to operate the current system. The Ministry should now seek to obtain a Treasury commitment for an additional £500 million over four years for local planning authorities. Providing this certainty of funding should precede the introduction of the Planning Bill. (Paragraph 185)

27.The Government’s reforms require an increase in planning staff, especially those with specific specialist skills, such as design. These skills gaps will need to be filled if the planning system is to be improved. The Government must undertake and publish a resources and skills strategy in advance of primarily legislation, to clearly explain how the various skill needs of the planning system will be met. (Paragraph 186)

Design and beauty

28.The Government’s focus on beauty, whilst laudable, must not detract from other important aspects of design. The Government must ensure that its national design code, advice for local authorities about local design codes, and other aspects of design policy reflect the broadest meaning of design, encompassing function, place-making, and the internal quality of the housing as a place to live in, alongside its external appearance. Given the problems with defining beauty, and to ensure a wider approach to design, there should also not be a ‘fast track for beauty’. Many discussions about beauty and design are very localised, concentrating a specific site, building or street. We do not think these discussions can be incorporated into Local Plans covering an entire local authority. Therefore, the Government must clarify how the public will be able to offer views about developments at this small scale. This is doubly significant given the Government’s proposed reduction in the opportunities for people to comment on individual planning proposals. (Paragraph 203)

Green Belt

29.We agree with evidence that called for the protection of the green spaces in the Green Belt; whilst also recognising that not all Green Belt land are green spaces. A review should examine the purpose of the Green Belt, including whether it continues to serve that purpose, how the public understand it, what should be criteria for inclusion, and what additional protections might be appropriate. The creation of new Local Plans also provides an opportunity for local reviews of Green Belts and the Government should help identify those local authorities where such reviews are particularly urgent. Local Plans can also relieve pressure on Green Belts by prioritising developments on brownfield sites. The Government should ensure there is sufficient funding provided to support their decontamination. (Paragraph 210)

30.Given the demands for additional housing in urban areas, and the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic about the importance of green spaces for people dwelling in cities and large towns, it is concerning that the Government White Paper did not confirm the same protections for Metropolitan Open Land as for Green Belt Land. We therefore recommend that the Government extend the same protections that are provided under any new planning system to Metropolitan Open Land as apply for Green Belt. (Paragraph 212)

Environmental and historical protections

31.There is a case for improving our knowledge of where there are possible historical sites and for further protections for specific sites and currently undesignated locations. The Historic Environment Records dataset should be put on a statutory basis. The Government should assess the merits of providing additional protections for other sites, such as those of local interest and World Heritage Sites. We also recommend that the Government publish an assessment of the impact of its proposed changes on historic buildings and sites. This should include the impact on undesignated and future archaeology, and on heritage sites situated in growth areas. (Paragraph 223)

32.The Government should clarify how it intends to define flood risk in the planning system. This includes clarifying how this will take account of the possible impact of climate change and how it fits within wider flooding policy. (Paragraph 225)

33.The planning system should pay greater attention to the importance of green spaces and to wildlife near to people’s residences. The Government should reconsider the retention of sustainability assessments and ensure that the operation of Environmental Impact Assessments on the planning system is covered in its further consideration ahead of the Planning Bill. (Paragraph 232)

Published: 10 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement