LGA's position on the Government's Planning Reforms

In August 2020, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published the Planning for the Future White Paper with proposals for long-term fundamental structural changes to England’s planning system.


In August 2020, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published the Planning for the Future White Paper with proposals for long-term fundamental structural changes to England’s planning system. This fundamental reform of the existing planning system will require changes to primary and secondary legislation. Concurrently, MHCLG consulted on Changes to the current planning system which included proposals for more immediate amendments to existing planning processes.

The Government is still considering the 44,000 responses they received to the White Paper consultation, and have committed to publishing their response before introducing a Planning Bill to Parliament. In the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021, a Planning Bill to implement the White Paper planning reforms was announced. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) On the Day Briefing includes our response to the Planning Bill’s outlined purpose.

A planning system that creates great places for everyone

The LGA shares the Government’s aspirations for an efficient, well-resourced planning system that supports local involvement in designing, planning and creating great places for current and future generations. To succeed in meeting these challenges the planning system needs to be transparent, fit for purpose, and accessible to all. We want to work together with the Government to get any changes to the planning system right.

However, the current proposals lack the detail needed for full debate and comment. This has led to wide-ranging concerns about how the proposals would work in practice. Whilst we recognise the Government’s aspiration to improve the current system, without addressing many of the detailed issues, there is a significant risk that proposed changes could have a detrimental effect on the planning system. We are therefore calling for the Government to bring the Planning Bill forward in draft form to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. We have an opportunity to take the time needed to make improvements to the planning system. Conversely, if we get this wrong, the impacts will last generations, and some will be irreversible.

Planning and the wider national agenda

The LGA recommends that the proposals are considered within the context of other new legislation and policies. This means taking a joined up, whole of government approach, aligning with other integral Government legislation such as the Environment Bill and Building Safety Bill, and wider agendas such as Climate Change, Net Zero, and COP26, and Levelling-Up.

Since publishing the White Paper, the Government has also consulted on further proposals, some of which have already led to changes to the planning system. These include changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need and the introduction of the First Homes policy for first-time buyers at a discount of at least 30 per cent against market value.

Other changes include the National Planning Policy Framework and a new draft National Model Design Code. Proposals in the consultation Supporting Housing and Public Service Infrastructure were shortly followed by confirmation that nationally permitted development rights (PDR) would be extended. This will allow conversion from any commercial use to residential use, for applications for major infrastructure development such as schools, hospitals, and prisons to be fast-tracked without going through the existing planning process.

Summary of key LGA messages

  • The LGA shares the Government’s aspirations for an efficient, well-resourced planning system that supports local involvement in designing, planning and creating great places for current and future generations. To succeed in meeting these challenges the planning system needs to be transparent, fit for purpose, and accessible to all. We want to work together with the Government to get any changes to the planning system right.  

  • The focus of the White Paper proposals appears to be on housebuilding and land-use planning, to the exclusion of the many roles planning undertakes to create places. The proposals lack detail and there is a significant risk that proposed changes could have a detrimental effect on the planning system. We therefore urge the Government to bring the Planning Bill forward in draft form to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny.  

  • The LGA has raised concerns about the timing of a wholesale overhaul of the existing system and change to a new system, including the necessary legislation. This will create uncertainty and take many years to deliver and implement across Whitehall and the wider planning sector. Constant changes to national planning policy over successive Government administrations have undermined councils’ critical role in placemaking. Austerity measures have further cut vital resources for council staff and capacity necessary to lead on and carry out this work. 

  • As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic we need stability and certainty in planning, supported by the appropriate resourcing. The LGA’s Keep Planning Local campaign calls for a locally-led planning system in which councils and the communities they represent have a say over the way places develop. This will ensure the delivery of high-quality affordable homes with the necessary infrastructure to create sustainable, resilient places.  

  • Local authorities will need the appropriate resources to lead on the transition and implementation to a more streamlined approach. However, planning fees already do not cover the true cost of processing applications and taxpayers currently subsidise the cost at a rate of nearly £180 million a year. This significantly reduces their capacity to ensure the delivery of new housing through the planning process and enable the new supply of housing and appropriate infrastructure.  

  • Any reforms to the planning system should support councils to work towards delivering a new generation of 100,000 high quality social homes per year, which would help towards meeting the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. With previous research for the LGA and partners showing that investment in a new generation of social housing could return £320 billion to the nation over 50 years, the arguments for investment in social housing as an economic stimulus will grow stronger post-pandemic. 

  • We are pleased that the Government has reversed its earlier decision regarding updates to the housing formula. However, it is simply not equitable that councils and the communities they represent could be set binding targets, with associated sanctions if these are not met, when councils have limited tools to incentivise developers to build the homes needed at the scale and speed necessary.  

  • The White Paper provides no evidence that the planning system is responsible for holding up the build out of developments With nine in 10 planning applications approved by councils, and more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade not yet built, planning is not the problem. There is also land for more than one million homes already allocated in Local Plans which developers have not yet brought forward to planning application stage.  

  • Local democratic oversight and community engagement are critical factors in ensuring trust and transparency in planning decisions and all aspects of the planning system. We are concerned that the proposed shortened timeframes for Local Plan engagement would lead to a loss of local democracy, with councillors and communities being cut out of the process and a reduced ability to have a say on individual planning applications.  

  • The pandemic has highlighted stark inequalities within our society. The LGA has raised concerns that extending nationally prescribed permitted development rights (PDR)  does not support the Government’s aspirations outlined in the Planning White Paper. The Government’s own research has shown how conversions to residential through change of use PDR can fail to meet adequate design standards, avoid contributing to local areas and create worse living environments. PDR also undermines the policies in the National Planning Policy Framework and the intention of the draft National Model Design Code to create sustainable, well-designed places. By allowing major public service infrastructure developments to be fast-tracked they may delay other existing plans, placing an additional burden on councils. Councils will likely require additional resources to fast-track these applications, which will put significant pressure on councils with already stretched resources.  

  • The new Growth/Renewal/Protect areas are still very unclear, and a shift from a discretionary to rule-based system lacks robust justification. Although not called zones in the White Paper, the ‘areas’ approach is based on zonal planning systems which have different existing planning systems and processes. They do not provide off-the shelf options for England, making it unclear how the new areas would work in detail.  

  • LGA supports a framework that will enable locally-led sustainable development, driving growth and regeneration, revitalising communities and creating the right mix of homes. However, any new infrastructure levy is unlikely to be able to fund all necessary infrastructure and will require trade-off decisions to be made. 

  • As an absolute minimum, any replacement for Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and Section 106 development contributions should aim to capture at least the same amount of value as the existing system at an individual local authority level, rather than a national figure.  

  • Councils need powers to incentivise developers to build and ensure there is a mix of homes, to rent and buy, that are available and affordable to people that need them. 

  • LGA supports the shift to a more digitalised planning system, making it more accessible and efficient. Councils will need the appropriate resources to lead on this step-change, and issues of digital exclusion will need to be addressed to ensure all residents can engage in the planning process. Councils should have the flexibility to determine the most appropriate method of engaging with the public that provide easier and more cost-effective ways of finding out about, for example, planning applications and planning decisions.

LGA response to the Planning White Paper proposals

The Planning White Paper has 24 individual proposals across for themes, some with multiple options: Planning for Development; Planning for Beautiful and Sustainable Places; Planning for Infrastructure and Connected Places; Delivering Change. The following section outlines the key proposals across these themes followed by the LGA’s view on their practical implementation.

1. Growth/Renewal/Protect Areas 

The White Paper proposes that the role of land use plans is simplified. To do this, Local Plans would identify three types of land: 

  • Growth areas – suitable for substantial development which will receive outline planning permission with no need for planning committee 

  • Renewal areas – suitable for development, presumption will be in favour of development 

  • Protected areas – will require full planning permission, and include land such as Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Conservation Areas, etc.  

The new Growth/Renewal/Protect areas are still very unclear, and a shift from a discretionary to rule-based system. Alternative proposals are also set out for binary models such as combining Growth and Renewal areas, which would  extend permission in principle to all land within this area, based on the uses and forms of development specified for each sub-area within it. A second alternative approach is to would be to limit automatic permission in principle to land identified for substantial development in Local Plans (Growth areas). 

LGA view  

The ‘areas’ approach is based on international zonal planning systems. The White Paper suggests that contrary to England, countries where zonal planning systems are used to providing greater certainty up front. However, the White Paper fails recognise that these examples exist within different planning systems such as a spatial planning system whereby decisions are made at the national, regional and local levels and land-use planning is a key spatial planning tool; and/or legislative or governmental systems with a highly devolved system of government. These models therefore may not easily work when superimposed onto the existing English context.  

The proposed ‘area’ categories are too restrictive and do not reflect the complexity of the areas that Local Plans need to plan for, for example, complex urban areas. There are also concerns that the proposals will make it more difficult to develop communities that have the right mix of homes, jobs, and other social and physical infrastructure. Currently, there are few details on how the system would work in practice.  

Local planning authorities are already required to set out the vision and framework for the future development of their local areas through a Local Plan, so it is unclear what problem the new proposed areas are trying to solve. It is also unclear how the new areas will work in detail. The proposed ‘area’ categories are too restrictive and do not reflect the complexity of the areas that Local Plans need to plan for.  

It is also unclear how the uses within a sub-area would come forward for uses such as schools or open space. Communities and councillors will need the ability to be involved at a later stage on the proposed sub-areas before applications are given approval, due to their more localised impacts. 

2. Streamlining Local Plan development

Rules based Local Plans  

Local Plans would be required to set clear rules rather than general policies for development. General Development Management policies would now be set nationally in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), with a more focused role for Local Plans in identifying site and ‘area’-specific requirements, alongside locally-produced design codes. Local Plans would need to be significantly shorter, visual and map-based, based on the latest digital technology and standardised using a new template of no more than 50 pages.  

Development Management policies contained in a Local Plan would be restricted to clear and necessary site or ‘area-specific’ requirements, including broad height limits, scale and/or density limits for land included in areas categorised as Growth or Renewal. The NPPF would become the primary source of policies for Development Management, replacing general ‘policies’ with specific development standards.  

Shortened timeframes 

Every ‘area’ would be required to have a Local Plan developed through a streamlined process whereby councils would need to have an up to date plan within 30 months of the legislation being brought into force. There would be sanctions for failing to meet this deadline. Local planning authorities that have adopted a Local Plan within the previous three years or where a Local Plan has been submitted to the Secretary of State for examination would have 42 months from when the legislation is brought into force, or upon adoption of the most recent plan, whichever is later.  

LGA view  

Genuinely constructive public engagement will take longer than the proposed timeframes for completing Local Plans. We acknowledge that the Local Plan system does need to be simplified and tightened up to reduce the scope for appeals. But without the detail, the White Paper provides little evidence that the proposed changes would support the ambition for a more efficient, simplified, and democratic system that would achieve better planning outcomes 

Councils need to retain the ability to set local Development Management policies to meet the specific requirements of their community. Development Management plays a key role in local authorities’ ability to achieve their local planning vision and policies and long-term strategic outcomes. Centralising the process would remove the ability for councils to address local challenges and future needs with appropriate policies.  

We support measures to enhance public participation by using digital technology rather than out-of-date notices in local newspapers. A more digital service will make the planning system more accessible and efficient, alongside other forms of engagement to ensure that all residents can engage in the planning process.  

The planning process is iterative and should be based on agreed principles with the flexibility to balance the needs of developers against those of communities. Flexibility needs to be built into the system, allowing local authorities to respond to changing circumstances. The sector will want to work with Government on the details to ensure that they are workable locally, with flexibility built into the system allowing local authorities to respond to complexity and to changing circumstances. 

3. New Sustainable Development Test

The current Sustainability Appraisal system would be replaced with a single statutory “sustainable development” test. This would consider whether a Local Plan contributes to achieving sustainable development in accordance with policy issued by the Secretary of State. There would no longer be a requirement to consider viability or a ‘Duty to Cooperate’, although further consideration will be given to strategic cross-boundary issues, such as major infrastructure or strategic sites.  

LGA view  

We have concerns regarding proposals to replace the existing approach for environmental assessments with a quicker, simpler framework simply to speed up the process. Whilst we support greater efficiency in the planning system, the White Paper has not provided evidence that a “simpler test” and “slimmed down” approach will support achieving greater sustainability.  

4. Local Democratic Oversight with shortened Local Plan processes

The White Paper proposes early enhanced engagement with neighbourhoods and communities at the Local Plan stage. There is no detail on the engagement process, nor does it recognise the importance of community engagement with developers prior to making their application. Far fewer individual applications will go through planning committees and councillors will not be able to represent their communities where there are local concerns about individual applications. The council and councillors’ role in other areas where communities need support such as enforcement is not detailed. The White Paper does not explain how the new process will help improve better engagement or reach a wider local audience, at the plan making stage; this is particularly problematic when this may be a community’s only opportunity. 

Local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will be required through legislation to meet a statutory timetable for key stages of the process. The Government will consider what sanctions there would be for those who fail to do so. Under the Government’s proposals for a shortened 30-month timeframe, councils will need to radically and profoundly reinvent the ambition, depth, and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans. 

LGA view 

Local democratic oversight and community engagement are critical factors in ensuring trust and transparency in planning decisions and all aspects of the planning system. The narrative throughout the White Paper is about increasing public engagement in the planning process. However, the proposals appear to limit rather than enhance engagement. Genuine public engagement will leave a community with an agreed understanding about how, where, and what type of increased capacity will meet their future needs.  

The future focus of local engagement in planning will be at the Local Plan making stage. Communities will not be able to influence individual applications as they do now. Councils have noted how difficult it is to get communities to engage in developments that might not take place for a decade. The proposals will lead to a loss of local democracy, with councillors and communities being cut out of the process and a reduced ability to have a say on individual planning applications. Local planning authorities will need the resources to carry out the meaningful community engagement critical to achieving good planning outcomes with this new approach. We want to work with the Government and the sector to ensure that the system does not lose its important local democratic scrutiny. 

5. Incentivising build out of homes

The White Paper commits to exploring further options to support faster build out. This is not the first time this commitment has been made, but any tangible powers are yet to be brought forward.

LGA view

The sector wants to work with Government on proposals including: a ‘stalled sites’ council tax premium (like the existing empty homes premium); a streamlined compulsory purchase process to acquire (at pre-uplift value) stalled sites or sites where developers do not build out to agreed rates and powers to direct diversification of housing products on sites. Councils are committed to getting homes built where they are needed but do not have the powers to ensure it happens once planning permission has been granted or when a site has been allocated in a Local Plan.

2,782,300 homes have been granted planning permission by councils since 2010/11 but over the same period only 1,627,730 have been built. There are also more than a million homes allocated in Local Plans that have not yet come forward for planning permission. The LGA’s report Speeding up delivery: Learning from councils enabling timely build out of high-quality housing shows that planning can only influence certain parts of the housing delivery chain which are impacted by a range of issues.

6. Planning for beautiful and sustainable places

Proposals regarding creating beautiful places are largely influenced by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report Living with Beauty. To do this the NPPF has been updated to include reference to the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code and the use of area-, neighbourhood- and site-specific design guides. Further changes support ‘beautiful and safe places’, giving schemes which comply with local design guides, codes and masterplans a positive advantage. Other changes to the NPPF requires new developments to have tree-lined streets, the designation of Local Green Space, a requirement to look further ahead than the plan period (at least 30 years) to take into account the timescale for delivery, and support for more building on brownfield land.

LGA view

Whilst the White Paper talks about protecting and promoting the stewardship and improvement of the countryside and environment there is little detail and no mention of farming, agriculture, or ecosystem services. We support an increased focus on design, we are concerned that because ‘beauty’ is subjective, striving for, or allowing ‘beautiful’ development to be fast-tracked may not lead to the quality homes and places communities want and need. Councils need tools that will empower them to create great quality homes and places and stop poor development, rather than supporting those deemed to be ‘beautiful’.

Any changes to the planning system needs to have sustainability at the heart and must consider the improvements and strategic interventions necessary to support our shift to a carbon neutral future. We welcome an expanded definition of sustainable development which now includes the 17 UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Local government plays a vital role in leading the way to address climate change, reduce carbon emissions, and create the sustainable places we need. Many councils have ambitious climate targets and plans in place to achieve net zero carbon before the Government’s 2050 target. Councils need the tools to become exemplars for using new smart technologies and sustainable construction methods supported by appropriate investment.

7. Infrastructure

The White Paper proposes a new Infrastructure Levy to replace the existing developer contributions system of Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). The levy would be charged as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory nationally-set rate or rates. The current system of planning obligations will be abolished. Revenues would continue to be collected and spent locally.

In areas where land value uplift is insufficient to support significant levels of land value capture, some or all the value generated by the development would be below the threshold, and not subject to the Infrastructure Levy. In higher value areas, a much greater proportion of the development value would be above the exempt amount, and subject to the Infrastructure Levy. To better support the timely delivery of infrastructure, local authorities would be allowed to borrow against Infrastructure Levy revenues so that they could forward fund infrastructure. It is unclear what impact these reforms would have on the overall level of developer contributions and their distribution, or on the number of on-site affordable houses provided.

LGA view

The LGA welcomes the recent confirmation by the Secretary of State that any future levy will be set locally rather than nationally. The sector will want to work with the Government on how the levy is determined. It is very unlikely that the new levy will provide an area’s infrastructure needs and it will be important for the planning reforms to be seen within the context of the broader national infrastructure needs and how these can be financed. Whilst we have yet to see further detail since last year’s consultations, we have had indications from Government that this is an area where they want to work with us help design the policy.

8. Resourcing and Skills Strategy

This final section of the White Paper identifies measures required to transition from our current planning system to the new system, and the role of local planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate in that transition. As new skills will be required in urban design, masterplanning and community engagement, a Skills Strategy for the planning sector is proposed to support the implementation of the reforms. Local authorities will also be subject to a new performance framework, as well as being required to place more emphasis on the enforcement of planning standards and decisions. Local authorities will be required through Neighbourhood Plans, to produce design guides and codes, and appoint a Chief Officer for design and place-making.

In the White Paper and subsequent NPPF and new National Model Design Code consultation, the Government has committed to developing a resourcing and skills framework which works for all authorities across the country, by working with local planning authorities, professional bodies and the wider planning sector to ensure views about implementation are considered.

Planning fees would continue to be set on a national basis and cover at least the full cost of processing the application type based on clear national benchmarking.

LGA view

We welcome more information regarding how a reformed planning system will be resourced. There is considerable concern from councils about their already stretched capacity, notwithstanding the need to respond to numerous relevant consultations. Planning affects other areas of council business, and any changes to the system will have impacts well beyond planning departments and across all council operations.

Planning fees do not cover the true cost of processing planning applications. Taxpayers currently subsidise the cost at a rate of nearly £180 million a year. This is most apparent with smaller applications. Councils need the ability to recover the costs of processing applications, and therefore should be able to charge an appropriate fee. The LGA has therefore lobbied for councils to have the ability to set fees locally to ensure they can recover the true cost of processing applications

Local planning authorities will need resources to carry out the meaningful community engagement critical to achieving good planning and will need to be properly resourced for any additional burdens due to any changes to the planning system going forward.

Councils will also need the necessary resources to upskill or hire new planning officers to undertake the transition process locally and then implement the new planning regime alongside developing a new design guide. According to Public Practice, to upskill and produce and deliver local Design Codes at scale local planning authorities will need forward-funding. They also estimated that adopting a Design Code for an area of approximately 1000 homes will cost £139,000.

9. Transitional Arrangements

The White Paper states that the Government will consider the arrangements for implementing any changes to minimise disruption to existing plans and development proposals and ensure a smooth transition. This includes making sure that recently approved plans, existing permissions and any associated planning obligations can continue to be implemented as intended; and that there are clear transitional arrangements for bringing forward new plans and development proposals as the new system begins to be implemented.

LGA view

We are pleased that the Government is considering arrangements for a smooth transition. We have continued to urge the Government to publish a timetable to provide certainty about the proposed fuller consultation on the NPPF, further upcoming planning consultations, and the overall progress with the Planning White Paper response. This will help councils already struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to undertake the transition process with as little disruption as possible.

10. Permitted Development Rights

As part of the wider planning reforms, the Government consulted on, and subsequently extended Permitted Development Rights (PDR). This would allow premises in the new Commercial, Business and Service Use Class (Use Class E), as well as a new PDR and a faster planning application process for the extension of major public service developments such as schools, hospitals, and prisons.

LGA view

Extending PDR undermines councils’ ability to make decisions that reflect local need and could undermine councils’ plans for local recovery in the wake of the pandemic. The new PDR does not support the Government’s aspirations outlined in the Planning White Paper which the LGA shares, such as including greater democratic accountability and transparency, tackling climate change, protecting our heritage, planning for beautiful and sustainable places, and developing the necessary and high-quality infrastructure and affordable homes we need. Councils and their communities have already been left with a long-term legacy of negative impacts resulting from some of the 19 amendments to the General Permitted Development Order since 2015. 

Whilst we support an increased focus on design, we continue to have concerns that proposals for fast-tracking development deemed ‘beautiful’ may not lead to high quality homes and places communities. Allowing major public service infrastructure developments to be fast-tracked may also delay other existing plans, thereby placing an additional burden on councils. Councils will likely require additional resources to fast-track these applications, which will put significant pressure on councils with already stretched resources.

We reiterated these concerns in our evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s (HCLG) recent inquiry into the Government’s proposals to extend PDR. The HCLG Committee echoed our concerns that the Government has not explained how its PDR regime fits within the wider planning system or its proposed reforms in the planning White Paper, and that recent extensions to PDR appear to contradict the increased focus on plan-led development and local democratic involvement, undermining the role of local authorities in place-making. The Committee also agreed with our recommendations that the Government should pause any further extensions of PDR for change of use to residential; allow local authorities to increase fees accordingly to recover the full cost of prior approval and other planning applications; and give local authorities the ability to prevent the siting of homes in inappropriate locations, such as business and industrial parks.