The UK government has launched a consultation on planning reforms which it promises will be the greatest shake-up of the system for 75 years.
The consultation comes after the swift introduction of new planning rules aimed at making it easier for some commercial premises to be converted for residential use.
These changes will confer three new routes to faster, easier redevelopment and extension. They will allow developers to avoid normal planning approval, if they wish to demolish or rebuild office or industrial buildings as housing. Up to two additional floors will be allowed to be added to a slew of residential and commercial buildings. And a new “business” use class will replace previous differentiation that allocated properties according to retail, financial and professional services, restaurants and cafes or business space. In their place will come a new Class E covering commercial, business and service uses.
The changes have been roundly criticised by design and planning professionals, concerned that building quality and urban mix could be damaged. At the Royal Town Planning Institute, chief executive Victoria Hills called the plans “a serious error of judgement from the government which will have a negative impact on the quality of life of future residents and local communities.”
The move to encourage more redevelopment with little oversight comes despite criticism of the outcome of an earlier “permitted development” easing of planning rules. This saw a number of office, and a few industrial buildings, converted to housing without the need for approval via the traditional planning process. An analysis of the outcome was recently undertaken by a government-sponsored report. Amongst their conclusions the authors noted: “Permitted development conversions do seem to create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers.”
The changes, already in the statutes pipeline, will come into effect this autumn, at the same time as a consultation takes place on far wider planning reforms.
Aims include streamlining and speeding up the planning process, while delivering more housing. There will continue to be an emphasis on reusing brownfield land for development, while protecting green space and green belt land.
Land will be designated under three categories: growth, renewal, or protection. For commercial developers, the aim is to simplify the conversion from one use to another, so that retail premises can be reused as housing, for example.
Clearer rules are promised, to reduce the number of projects that go to appeal, if initially turned down. There will be a more robust system to ensure developments fund local infrastructure such as schools.
The system will also try to rebalance the portion of smaller construction companies active in housing development. Thirty years ago, 40% of UK homebuilding was carried out by small firms, but the complexity and cost of the development process is blamed for reducing this to just 12% today, with most new homes delivered by a small number of large-scale housing developers, often criticised for poor quality product
“Our complex planning system has been a barrier to building the homes people need; it takes 7 years to agree local housing plans and 5 years just to get a spade in the ground,” said housing secretary Robert Jenrick.
“We will cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before. Planning decisions will be simple and transparent, with local democracy at the heart of the process.”
Alongside a simpler system, is the idea of moving to a rules-based system, rather than the current discretionary planning process in the UK. Notes the government paper: “Nearly all decisions to grant consent are undertaken on a case-by-case basis, rather than determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done. This makes the English planning system and those derived from it an exception internationally, and it has the important consequences of increasing
planning risk, pushing up the cost of capital for development and discouraging both innovation and the bringing forward of land for development.”
All developments will be taxed with an infrastructure levy, based around that already used in some city locations in the UK and replacing locally negotiated agreements. Local authorities will be permitted to borrow against their local income stream from such levies, to get local infrastructure built.
Any area zoned as a “growth” area would be automatically deemed as having sites with outline consent for development. There is also the promise that schemes which met key requirements could receive automatic full consent.
Environmental aspirations include a progressive move towards more energy efficient buildings, with a target of net zero development by 2050.
Jon Patrick, head of the leisure team at Christie & Co, said the impact was most likely to be felt in urban centres: “The majority of change is taking place around the high street.” And this could impact on hotel development, by reducing the availability of sites: “If you look at our city centres, hoteliers want to be slap bang in the middle.”
Patrick said a more subtle outcome was likely, once developers started working through the impact of the changing uses – impacting on demand and supply across residential and business space. “What I think will happen, and we’ve seen this before, is people spotting opportunities.” As a knock-on impact, a site once preferable developed as a hotel might instead be reassessed as a new office scheme; or a planned apartment block may see a reduced valuation due to local housing conversions, pushing it instead towards a hotel scheme.
HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: As with so many other areas of life, the coronavirus lockdown has shone a light on some things the planning system can do more efficiently, right away. Meetings have moved online – as have protest groupings. There is plenty more to do – local authorities still have a duty to hang a planning application notice on a nearby lamppost, for example.
The much-criticised relaxation of permitted development rules, starting from September, will make it easier again for developers to flip commercial buildings into residential use. Set aside for a moment the design issues around letting tired office blocks be converted to flats. What matters will be the unintended consequences. Each lost office block or row of light industrial units will shuffle the commercial property pack, reshaping local values. Developers may find their planned hotel project will suddenly be worth more as new offices, or a new row of sheds. Will this trigger a downturn in hotel development, at least at the margins? Maybe.
And so to the larger issue, of planning system reform.
Much of the upfront publicity around the proposed planning reforms is around housing – for that is what leads most directly to politicians and their local constituency problems. Plenty of professionals argue that housing supply is about other disfunctional elements in the housing market, not specifically related to planning: the mortgage market, for one. Maybe these reforms will address them, maybe not.
One hope for those in the business of developing hotels, is that a more prescriptive planning system will reduce the delay, and the cost, of getting to a consented development. Here’s hoping.