Planning - Autumn statement signals more reforms

This government  has set a pattern of  announcing planning reforms in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and this year was no exception when we were given a heads up on further changes intended to facilitate a greater supply of housing in the National Infrastructure Plan 2013.

The government has launched an "over-arching review" of the NSIP regime, which will seek views on streamlining consultation and environmental information requirements to speed up the pre-application phase and flexibility to make changes to Development Consent Orders after a decision is made.

The  proposal to  legislate so that where a planning authority has failed to discharge a condition on time, it will be treated as approved is to be welcomed. The time taken to discharge conditions is often a source of grief and delay and  it is surprising that this hasn’t been introduced before. The government also plan to consult on using legislative measures to strengthen the requirement for planning authorities to justify conditions that must be discharged before any work can start.

The New Homes Bonus Scheme (NHBS) was introduced in the Localism Act 2011 and provides cash for areas that allow new homes to be built in their area. Government funding has been set aside for local councils that welcome new housing development, which they can spend to benefit their local community. Under the scheme the Government matches the council tax raised from new homes for the first six years through the New Homes Bonus. Councils and communities work together to decide how to spend the extra funding - whether council tax discounts for local residents, boosting frontline services like rubbish collection or providing local facilities like swimming pools and leisure centres.

Now we have  a proposal to cut NHB payments - where local authorities refuse planning permission but the scheme succeeds on appeal. One can see  the point but local authority planning departments are already having to cope with limited resources. Where the LPA loses a case on appeal, but where the refusal was against officer advice, I am not convinced that reducing resources further( by taking away the NHB) will necessarily improve decision making. We all know that members can, and do, make sometimes decisions they cannot defend on appeal - even though they are well aware that they may have to bear the appellants costs- so cutting NHB is not much of a threat!

The local plan sets planning policies in a local authority area. These are very important when deciding planning applications. The government now proposes to require the production of a local plan. However – as we all know that takes time to put in place.  The rigorous local plan process means  that many an LPA has fallen at one or another hurdle en route  to producing a local plan. The fact that Councils that failed  to adopt a local plan by the end of March 2013 became subject to the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in the NPPF has been a spur to most LPA’s to get on with it; particularly in areas where there are no national designations (e.g. AONB, National Parks and SSSI’s) to offer protection.

The government plans to  consult on proposals to reduce the number of applications where unnecessary statutory consultations occur.  The government will go ahead with plans to establish a specialist planning court "with set deadlines to accelerate the handling of cases" and introduce legislation to ensure that minor procedural claims are dealt with proportionally and allow appeals to "leapfrog" directly to the Supreme Court in a wider range of circumstances. This is largely  designed to stop judicial reviews of planning decisions from holding up development. This looks like a step on the way to establishing a specialist Environmental Court.

Lastly the Chancellor announced rather mysteriously that "building on the measures it has already put in place at the local authority and community level, (including the neighbourhood funding element of the Community Infrastructure Levy, ‘Community Benefits’ in the energy sector and the New Homes Bonus), the government will work with industry, local authorities and other interested parties to develop a pilot passing a share of the benefits of development directly to individual households". Who knows what the government intends but it looks suspiciously like a very large carrot.

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