The Housing & Planning Bill: Permission In Principle

It is the intention of our government that 90% of suitable brownfield sites will have planning permission for housing by 2020.

As part of the new Housing and Planning policy document, the government is keen to introduce a new approach to planning permission. Designed to cater for housing led projects (with some allowance for complementary community or retail uses), Planning Permission in Principle - henceforth referred to as PiP- has been, and continues to be, a divisive topic.

Since the idea was first set out in 2015, incorporated into the contentious Housing and Planning Policy, PiP has been met with a significant amount of scepticism. Intended to maximise the availability of new sites for development through the streamlining of local authority responsibilities, and separate decision making between 'in principle' issues and matters of technical detail, PiP establishes the acceptability of a proposal in principle without applicants having to submit detailed proposals.

Granting the secretary of state the power to allocate permission in principle to land allocated for development, Section 59A of the Housing and Planning bill is touted by some as representative of "a significant centralisation of powers to central government."

"It is proposed that the secretary of state may introduce regulations providing that a council may only grant planning permission for a residential development meeting certain criteria if they include a set number or proportion of starter homes or a payment to provide starter homes."

On February 18th, a technical consultation document was posted, outlining the government approach to these reforms.

What's Driving The Changes To Planning Permission?

Within the planning sector at the moment, decisions are revisited at multiple points throughout the process, even when land has already been allocated at a local level. This leads to delays, frustrated applicants, and a drawn out application process. Not ideal.

As decision makers continuously assess the site suitability (despite allocation already taking place), the process drags. Often, developers are hesitant to put proposals forward unless there is a relatively high level of certainty surrounding site suitability. When the application process becomes drawn out, increased uncertainty can discourage developers.

So How Is PiP Supposed To Help?

In order to encourage new proposals from housing developers, PiP will establish the acceptability of a proposal when a site is either: designated by a local planning authority on a brownfield register as suitable for housing, or, when the site is allocated for housing in a local development plan. Focused on streamlining the process when it comes to securing consent to develop, increasing the levels of certainty developers and their investors hold within the process, and ensuring the continued pursuit of quality outcomes, PiP should reduce the duplication of effort involved within the planning process.

The new system means that there will be 2 stages to getting planning permission. The first, PiP, should require proposals put forward to contain a minimum amount of information. This consists of the core elements surrounding the basic suitability of a site for development (the location, the uses and the amount of development needed). Interestingly, PiP can't be applied retrospectively to land which has been allocated within existing plans.

The government goes into further detail surrounding this criteria within the 2nd Chapter of their technical consultation. However, it is worth noting that whilst the details required for PiP are less intensive than the rigorous permission process currently in place, local planning authorities will be unable to impose conditions when granting permission in principle. This necessitates a high level of detail in the TDC to establish the parameters within the application.

So What Comes Next?

The second stage is an application for technical details consent. This is to agree on the details of a scheme before full planning permission is obtained. Here is where local planning authorities determine the technical information required to fully approve development. Applications for technical details consent must include:

- A nationally prescribed application form (including a certificate which applicants must complete to determine that notice of application for planning permission has been served on any landowners – known as an ownership certificate)
- Any plans and drawings necessary to describe the technical details of the development
- A fee (set at a level consistent with other types of applications within the planning system)

Once PiP and TDC has been granted, this constitutes full planning permission. At the TDC stage, Local Authorities are able to add conditions and negotiate planning agreements. A key challenge at this stage is to determine where the cut off between what is covered by PiP and what is covered by TDC lies.

"We expect that decisions on applications for technical details consent will be made efficiently as they will focus on whether the details is acceptable, rather than re-appraising the principle of development."

Why The Opposition?

PiP is among one of several new ideas set forth in the Housing and Planning policy which has attracted widespread criticism. The risks surrounding the introduction of this new policy are numerous. Whilst the government is steadfastly insistent that the cost of familiarising councils with the new permission system will not exceed £400,000, fears are that the cost of this system may well show itself in other ways...

One of the biggest concerns surrounding the new proposal is that it marks a shift towards the zonal planning system – as seen in the USA. Given that the government used the line

"...creating a zonal system for brownfield land creating automatic planning permission in principle for housing."*

in the House of Commons Briefing Paper (published February 22nd 2016) it seems that this hesitancy is not unfounded. The UK system currently relies on local authorities and planning professionals using their discretion to determine which development projects should be approved. Moving towards a US/EU mash-up style zonal system holds inherent danger in a loss of public support and the creation of a confusing framework.

Concerns that the introduction of PiP heralds the replacement of the public sector led ethos with one primarily developer led mean that there is a real risk of undermining local support for planning activities. With the government considering expanding the reach of PiP to major developments over the original specification of 10 units or less, there is additional confusion over how developers will be able to meet the requirements of the EIA directive fully.

Moreover, with the maximum amounts of sites designated suitable for housing estimated to be a mere 7000 per year, there are questions around how this policy will help to develop a significant proportion of much needed housing. Those contesting the Housing and Planning bill argue that it is not representational of those in greatest housing need, and contend that there should be safeguards in place for Local Authorities when promoting the development of starter homes.

Additionally, whilst the government's proposed Brownfield site register will need to include all Brownfield sites suitable for housing, it's unclear how the process to include sites benefiting from PiP would operate, and how it would be distinct from the process of allocating such sites within a local development plan.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the Housing and Planning policy, and so many reservations regarding the introduction of PiP, it will be interesting to see the results of the government consultation – which ends Friday 15th April.

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