2020: A Year of Planning Changes

This year has seen a rash of planning changes, particularly since March. Some changes have been made to enable the planning system to operate during the global pandemic, while others are more about using the planning system as a tool to restart the economy after three months of lockdown.

We have written in previous blogs about the time-limited right, introduced in March 2020, for restaurants, cafes and pubs, which were closed from 23 March to 4 July, to provide a takeaway service without the need for planning permission. Unless extended by the government, this right will end on 23 March 2021.

In April, new permitted development rights came into effect to allow local and health authorities to carry out development, whether erection of buildings or changes of use, to deal with health and other emergencies. These changes, which are a response to the global pandemic, are neither temporary nor confined to the coronavirus emergency.

We also wrote about the temporary relaxation of duties of planning authorities to publicise planning applications and documents and to make documents available at their offices for inspection by members of the public and the possible effects it was or could have. The changes make it possible for planning authorities to produce these documents online. Similar changes were made in July with respect to the obligation for authorities to keep physical copies of local plan documents for members of the public to inspect. The changes are in force until the end of 2020.

Regulations, which came into effect on 1 August, were made to tidy up parts of the 2015 General Permitted Development Order, to grant new permitted development rights in relation to residential development and also to extend certain temporary use rights for the holding of markets and for motor car and motorcycle racing.

The most significant change in these regulations is the new permitted development rights which allow for the construction of up to two story "new dwelling houses" immediately above the top floor of a block of flats.

There were also tweaks to the permitted development legislation which include clarifying that applicants and local planning authorities can agree to a longer period of determination for prior approval applications. We have reported on the on-going litigation about this issue.  .

The regulations also introduce a further consideration for the relatively recent permitted development rights to convert buildings, including agricultural, office and commercial to residential buildings. The consideration is whether the building allowed for adequate natural light. The residential units that have resulted from these permitted development rights have been criticised for being sub-standard homes without basic amenities like natural light or garden space. These deficiencies have been very apparent during the lockdown to people who live in these units.

Two sets of regulations were made on 21 July. The first which took effect on 31 July, allows for the replacement of redundant industrial and office buildings with houses and blocks of 1990 flats as long as the building being replaced was built before 1 January 1990. The second due to come into force on 21 August, allows for the construction of two storeys of flats on top of dwelling houses or buildings in commercial and mixed uses.

The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) 2020 are due to come into force on 1 September. The regulations create a new use Class E which replaces use classes A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional services), A3 (restaurants) and B2 (light industrial and business uses) so that developers will be able to change between these uses without the need for planning permission. The government hopes that this will have the effect of kick-starting the recovery of high streets across the country.

In addition, there will be new use classes F1 and F2 for learning non-residential institutions and local community uses which replace the previous non-residential and assembly use classes D1 and D2.

Finally, on 6 August 2020 the government launched a White Paper entitled’ Planning For The Future’. The documents and the recommendations within are branded as an overhaul of “an outdated planning system” and was described in gov.uk's press release as "landmark reforms to speed up and modernise the planning system and get the country building".

Significant proposals include the replacement of the planning system with a rules-based system and a new national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions which consist of Community Infrastructure Levy payments and Section 106 agreements. Land is proposed to be designated by local communities into the following categories-for growth, for renewal, and for protection.

Another significant proposal is an obligation on local authorities to agree their local plans within 30 months. The government's detailed brief (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/planning-for-the-future-explained) is critical of the fact that it often takes authorities several years to complete the local plan process but in my experience this is often a result of complying with the statutory requirements, ensuring sufficient public participation, dealing with planning and legal challenges and lack of resourcing within planning departments.

The government pledges to continue to protect Green Belt land and green spaces and states that the focus will be on small and medium sized builders and more building on brownfield, or previously used land.

As always with planning changes, a focus of the white paper is building more homes which are environmentally friendly and its aspiration is to ensure that everyone has a chance at a beautifully designed home, which is affordable and also in the area that they want to live. Its purpose is also to stimulate the economy and the construction industry.

The planning system has been over the decades subject to changes which amount to, in my view, more than "fiddling around the edges" as described in the forward to the white paper. The consistent challenges with any changes are resourcing and implementing them and balancing them against local democracy, public participation and economic realities. Another challenge with any change to the system, whether the ones proposed in the white paper or the changes over the last decades is allowing enough time for the changes to have the desired effect.

Interested persons have 12 weeks, which is until 29 October 2020, to respond to the consultation on the white paper.

Please contact me for any advice in relation to planning issues.