The UK Government’s Levelling up and Regeneration Bill is a wide-ranging piece of proposed legislation that covers its levelling up ambitions.
The Bill runs to some 325 pages and the accompanying explanatory notes to a further 246 pages. The Bill will, in the main, extend to England and Wales and apply to England only with some provisions extending and applying across the UK.
It is a framework, which means that much of the detail is missing and will be covered in specific regulations. It is a wide-ranging Bill that covers the government’s levelling up missions, localised democracy and devolution, planning and heritage, a new infrastructure levy, environmental outcomes, development corporations, changes to compulsory purchase, vacant high street premises and requirements about interests and dealings in land. There are also clauses concerning council tax powers in respect of second-homes.
Here we summarise some of the planning-related headlines and other matters of note for members.
Part 3 Planning (England only)
The Bill’s purpose is to “improve the planning system to give communities a louder voice, making sure developments are beautiful, green and accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing”.
One of the more important changes proposed in the Bill relates to planning application decision-making within the “plan-led” planning system. Decision-makers (and, by association, applicants too) will face a new duty to take decisions in line with the development (local) plan and with “any national development management policies” unless material considerations “strongly indicate otherwise”. The notes suggests that this is to “increase certainty in planning decisions”. These proposals, if enacted, will make important changes to planning applications especially the evidence supporting them, and to how decisions will be made.
Under planning enforcement, the explanatory notes say the Bill will “amend and strengthen the powers and sanctions available to planning authorities to deal with individuals who fail to abide by the rules and process of the planning system”. This includes “facilitating enforcement action by closing existing loopholes” that can prolong unauthorised development allowing more time for the investigation of breaches (i.e. by increasing the current four-year investigation time limits to 10 years). Enforcement warning notices and increasing fines will also be introduced.
There are eight planning-related headings covered by the new legislation: beauty, infrastructure, democracy, environment, neighbourhoods, the planning application process, planning enforcement, and protecting heritage.
Planning authorities will be required to have a design code in place covering their entire area. Each code will act as a framework for more detailed design codes for specific areas and will be led by the planning authority, neighbourhood planning groups or by developers as part of a planning application.
A new infrastructure levy will be introduced, which will replace section 106 planning obligations and the community infrastructure levy. The Bill and notes are sparse on detail. Rates will be set and raised locally by planning authorities meaning that rates are tailored to local circumstances and ensure that levels of affordable housing provision must exceed or maintain previous levels. There will be a new requirement for planning authorities to prepare infrastructure delivery strategies outlining how they intend to spend the levy. It is rumoured that the new infrastructure levy will be a ‘non-negotiable’ locally set levy based on the final sales value of developments.
More weight will be given to local plans; neighbourhood plans and spatial development strategies proposed by mayors or combined authorities.
The scope of local plans would be limited to “local specific” matters with “issues that apply in most areas” covered by a new suite of national planning policies. A planning authority will prepare one plan with the content limited to locally specific matters such as allocating land for development, detailing required infrastructure and setting out principles of good design. General policies on issues that apply in most areas (e.g., such as heritage protection, and the CLA will argue rural economic development and rural housing) will be set out nationally and contained in a suite of National Development Management Policies, which will have the same weight as plans that they are fully taken into account in decisions. The explanatory notes state that local plans will not be able to repeat national policies.
The duty to cooperate will be dropped and time limits prescribed for different stages of plan preparation. There will be a new requirement for planning authorities to produce a consolidated policies map of the full development plan for their area.
There will be a new power for planning authorities to quickly create “supplementary plans” for some or all of their area. This would be where policies for specific sites or groups of sites need to be prepared quickly e.g., in response to a new regeneration opportunity, or to set out design codes for a site, area or across the whole area. Groups of authorities would be able to produce voluntary spatial development strategies on specific cross boundary issues.
There will be a simpler process for the preparation of neighbourhood plans called ‘neighbourhood priorities statement’. The Bill will “prescribe in more detail what communities can address in their neighbourhood plans and amend the ‘basic conditions’ to ensure neighbourhood plans are aligned with wider changes to the planning system”.
The European Union processes of Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment would be replaced by “Environmental Outcomes Reports”, while retaining the UK’s obligations under relevant UN conventions. The outcomes-based approach will allow the government to set “clear and tangible environmental outcomes” which a plan or project is assessed against. These changes will apply across the UK.
Registered parks and gardens, World Heritage Sites, registered battlefields, protected wreck sites, and so on will get the same level of planning protection as listed buildings and conservation areas. There are plans to strengthen some enforcement powers such as the use of temporary stop notices in relation to listed building works and other related clauses.
Other matters of note
The Compulsory Purchase Order system would be changed to “streamline and modernise Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO)” and grants powers to local authorities to use CPO for regeneration purposes.
A council tax premium on second homes would be introduced – the Bill introduces a “discretionary council tax premium on second homes and changes the qualifying period for use of the long-term empty homes premium”. The explanatory notes state that local authorities may levy a premium of up to an additional 100% on council tax bills for second homes and for empty homes after one year (as opposed to two years which is the current requirement). The government aims to consult on exemptions.
Measures to make land ownership more transparent will be introduced across England and Wales. The Bill includes measures that “will facilitate a better understanding of who ultimately owns or controls land in England and Wales”. This follows on from a 2017 housing white paper commitment by “collecting and publishing data on contractual arrangements used by developers to control land, such as rights of pre-emption, options and conditional contracts”.
However, from a planning perspective, there are some sensible ideas in the Bill which emerged in the 2020 planning white paper, and which have been taken forward – namely the much stronger focus on the National Planning Policy Framework which will eventually become a national development management policy. The CLA lobbied for the retention of this white paper suggestion, and we are pleased to see it coming forward in the Bill and will lobby to ensure that it is retained.
The CLA has produced several policy papers that include further recommendations for improving planning policy and regulation, and we will be tabling some of these during the Bill’s passage. If these are achieved then this should save time and make decision-making more consistent and robust, especially for rural economic development.
In the meantime, the CLA will undertake further analysis of the Bill and monitor it as it passes through Parliament using opportunities to improve where necessary.