BPF view: Government sets sights on planning system overhaul

1 Jul 2020

Policy area: Planning

This week, the government announced a number of new planning proposals through a statement issued by 10 Downing Street, which formed part of the Prime Minister’s wider suite of commitments to get the economy moving again post Covid-19.  

The planning announcements can be separated into two distinct categories – first a series of measures, which will come into force this September, to enable greater planning flexibility and secondly a longer-term stated ambition from the Prime Minister to introduce the “most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War”.

Flexibility is key to ‘new normal’ for high streets

The more immediate planning changes include allowing more types of commercial premises to have total flexibility to be repurposed through reform of the Use Classes Order. This is good news for the UK High Street. The Covid-19 crisis has only accelerated the necessity to focus on repurposing our town centres, and generally the need to encourage more homes and community-uses back in to the centre of our towns and cities, whilst maintaining their character and diversity.

Further immediate measures announced this week include an extension of Permitted Development rights to allow property owners to build additional storeys (via a fast track approval process) as well as a new proposed right to enable certain commercial buildings to be converted into residential units without the need for a formal planning application.

PDR – don’t throw caution to the wind 


On the latter, whilst we are supportive of the thrust of the demolition and rebuild proposal, there is a need for caution. It will be important that any new permitted development right takes due account of context, the role of developer contributions and other requirements to ensure the delivery of high-quality development. In reality, after all these considerations, might any approval process simply end up resembling a planning application in all but name?  

There may be other means to achieve the policy aspiration of adapting more redundant commercial buildings into residential use through the traditional planning process. For instance, through the introduction of a strong Written Ministerial Statement directing Local Authorities to prioritise these sorts of applications combined with a similar direction to the Planning Inspectorate that these types of applications should be prioritised on appeal.  Such an approach is not going to grab the headlines like a brand-new PD right but could prove a much more effective way of getting things moving.

A planning system shake-up

Turning to the government’s long-term aspirations, there have been numerous reports in recent weeks that the government considers the planning system as its key area for supply side reform. Indeed, we know from recent announcements that an MHCLG Planning Expert Group has been convened, which is said to be, in part, considering how zoning might be incorporated into the planning system in the future.  

The government statement from earlier this week confirmed that they will launch a ‘planning policy paper’ at some point in July having previously referred to the document as a White Paper (which is a document that typically contains firmer policy proposals off the back of previous rounds of consultation).  

An obvious question which therefore flows from this tweak in wording is whether the planning paper might now contain more radical proposals (such as those trailed around zoning by various Policy Exchange papers authored by the PM’s now Housing and Planning Advisor, Jack Airey).

We will have to wait and see when the paper is out later this month but what we do know is that rhetorically at least, the current administration is committed to a serious shake-up of the planning system. The BPF stands ready to work with government when further detail is announced.

By Sam Bensted, Senior Policy Officer, British Property Federation