Investment Zones are one of the measures set out in the government’s growth strategy. Although a laudable objective, there is a lack of detail on how they will work to accelerate the delivery of jobs and homes.
Key to their success is planning. For years we have been told planning needs simplifying, but the government’s strategy document promises more detail in ‘due course’.
The intention of Investment Zones is to remove burdensome requirements, reduce lengthy consultation with statutory bodies and relax key policy requirements.
There are few areas where this ‘planning liberation’ will not occur, including policies to ensure design quality, green-belt protection, heritage, flood risk, highways and other public safety matters. Given the tension between deregulating and liberalising planning, and issues such as protecting the green belt that trigger public responses and cause delays, striking the right balance will be crucial to success.
The strategy’s sense of urgency for Investment Zones is palpable. The recent application process was only open to Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) or Upper Tier Local Authorities (UTLAs) where there is now MCA. However, the expectation is they have obtained local in-principle approval from local planning authorities, constituent authorities and district councils.
It also identifies an opportunity to make changes to existing applications, further demonstrating the need for haste.
In practice, there are likely to be several hurdles to overcome with such significant changes to planning in Investment Zones, ranging from the introduction of new legislation and changes to Environmental Impact Assessment and habitat regulations, to streamlining consultation.
The desire for growth and Investment Zones’ local promotion will provide an impetus for change. Areas with a clear understanding of what is needed to support growth and deliver the necessary infrastructure, homes and jobs will benefit. In other areas, there may be a reluctance to relinquish control over sites or concern about stakeholder views not being heard.
For some areas to benefit clearly, there may need to be cross-authority collaboration and a wider regional view. In areas with combined authorities, this co-ordination might be there.
With more detail yet to come there are some key areas that will be important to address to achieve a successful growth strategy:
• Tension over EU legacy regulations and the risks of legal challenges/Judicial Review.
• Design versus flexibility and streamlining planning, as design is an emotive issue.
• Will these changes speed up the planning system as a whole, ie beyond Investment Zones, or just cause wider stagnation and delay?
• Lack of Local Planning Authority resources is recognised as one of the biggest causes of delay in the system and will remain a problem.
• Where do Investment Zones sit in the overall delivery of a new planning act?
It would be great if these hurdles could be overcome and for planning to join the wider fiscal benefits to speed up economic growth.
Julia Chowings is planning partner in Gerald Eve’s national planning and development team