Boris Johnson unveiled “once in a generation” planning reforms on Thursday that will restrict the power of local councils to oppose new developments in an attempt to speed up the delivery of new homes across England.
The aim of the reforms is to simplify and accelerate the planning process, according to the government, although critics have warned that the proposals could trigger a cascade of lightly regulated development.
Key to the proposals, on which the government has launched a consultation, is a categorisation of land as “growth”, “renewal” or “protection” in an effort to stimulate building and tackle the UK’s acute housing shortage.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said the current planning system was a legacy from the 1940s and “was very slow by international standards”. He added: “The system we are proposing is a much faster and simpler system.”
On land designated for growth by local councils, new developments that meet certain criteria will receive automatic permission. Mr Jenrick admitted that once a zone had been designated for growth, local people would not be able to reject developments.
Developments on so-called “renewal” land will receive “permission in principle”, while those on protected land will not.
Ministers have also promised to help small builders as part of the package of reforms, which will slash regulations and reduce costs for some developers.
Mr Jenrick said: “The current system heavily favours the big volume housebuilders, who have the resources to navigate a very complex and highly litigious system.
The government’s proposals include a measure to exempt small sites from payments towards local council infrastructure such as schools and affordable housing, which is one of the major costs faced by developers.
Such fees, called section 106 payments, are often a condition for receiving planning permission. But they can be a costly impediment to small and medium-sized builders, whose numbers have declined in recent years.
“The current system has shown itself to be unfavourable to small businesses, with the proportion of new homebuilding they lead on dropping drastically from 40 per cent 30 years ago to just 12 per cent today,” said the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Alistair Watson, head of planning and environment at law firm Taylor Wessing, said: “As a developer you have to pay upfront for the land, then find funds for a planning application. And even when you get the permission that will very often come with contributions that have to be paid before you start building.” Those costs could be prohibitive for smaller builders, he added.
But waiving section 106 payments may prove complicated and would not alone be enough to help SMEs catch up, said Judith Salomon, strategic planning director at Pocket Living, a small builder.
“The new [zoning] categories may be simpler, but if SMEs have to jump through the same hoops I don’t see how that’s an advantage for them. The planning system has no sense of proportionality; a development of 50 homes has to address the same policies as one of 500 or 5,000 homes but with less land,” she said.
Ministers are also proposing a one-off “infrastructure levy”, set as a fixed proportion of the value of a development, over a certain level, to replace section 106 payments and the community infrastructure levy — another payment to local councils.
Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said: “Section 106 agreements between developers and councils are tragically one of the only ways we get social homes built these days, due to a lack of direct government investment. So, it makes no sense to remove this route to genuinely affordable homes without a guaranteed alternative.”