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The Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill

One of the Government’s key priorities this Parliament has been to deliver 1,000,000 new homes by 2020. However, based on current building rates, it is unlikely that the Government will succeed in delivering on this target.

Nevertheless, the government has been extremely active in this area of policy. Not only has it provided a huge state subsidy to the housing market in the form of Help to Buy, as well as new savings products, they have attempted to fundamentally speed up the whole planning process. The vehicle guiding this shift in approach has been the Housing and Planning Bill which achieved Royal Assent in May 2016.

Not without controversy, the Bill has had a mixed response. On the critical side, opposition has been fierce, mostly from social housing tenants worried about their future in this new world of home ownership in the form of Starter Homes. Those supportive of the Bill point to ‘permissions in principle’ on brown field sites as something that could realistically deliver housing much more quickly.

Nevertheless, and seemingly a glutton for punishment, the Government has announced another raft of legislation designed to promote house building: the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill.

The planning process is the Government’s intended target once again, specifically pre-commencement planning conditions. They are arguing that conditions imposed on house builders unnecessarily increases the time between a successful application and spades in the ground, or cause delays during construction. This, along with the strengthening of Neighbourhood Planning, is the key issue the Bill will address.

Clearly any attempt to speed up the process is laudable as at least in theory, this approach could remove many of the barriers that hold up the start of developments.

However, many local authorities will be nervous about this new approach, and the curtailment of pre-commencement planning conditions. In practice this Bill may give them less control over developments coming forward and as a result it could actually delay planning permissions, as more militant Planning Committees – unable to secure safeguards – may be more inclined to refuse applications outright. This will send developers into the arms of the appeals process, which is not a rapid (or cheap) route to a permission.

To combat this, planning officers may insist on more detailed work at the pre-application stage – increasing the time taken to process an application. Indeed, land promoters and developers may be more cautious approaching a Planning Committee, electing to spend longer in pre-application discussions rather than face a refusal. All this on the back of already overstretched planning departments.

The second intention of the Bill is to strengthen the role of communities in development. In broad terms the Government aims to do this by making ‘the local government duty to support groups more transparent and by improving the process for reviewing and updating plans’. From a distance it does not seem the Government’s intention to change the role of communities in the planning process, rather to make their position clearer and more transparent. For example, Town and Parish Councils will have to keep their Neighbourhood Development Plan up to date and respond to new evidence in terms of housing need.

The reality of what this means is difficult to fully comprehend at this stage. Certainly, this Bill has the potential to bridge a knowledge and skills gap that does exist within Town and Parish councils, in relation to planning policy. For developers, this could mean that more consideration must be given to Neighbourhood Development Plan’s in the future.

However, if the full potential of this policy is to be realised, more funding for local authorities will be necessary – and this is a point raised by the Local Government Association in response to the Bill. Many planning departments are working to capacity to meet the Government’s 2017 deadline for Local Plans so in order to fully manage NDPs, as the Government intends, more resources will be required.

The British Property Federation has supported the strengthening of Neighbourhood Planning, stating; “we are very pleased to see this included within the Bill, as neighbourhood planning has proved to be an extremely effective tool for ensuring that development is brought about in a way that is supported by local communities and meets their needs.” The industry is therefore giving a cautious welcome to the proposals.

Of course, at this stage a lot of this is conjecture. The Government still has further work and consultation to do and so will have to bear these considerations in mind as the new Bill moves forward. As ever, the devil is in the detail, and at Richborough Estates we will be keeping an eagle eye on the legislation as it develops, analysing how it will affect the industry, the planning process and the delivery of housing.

14 June 2016