Investment Zones are one of a series of growth measures set out in the government’s Growth Strategy. This is a laudable objective; however, there is a lack of detail on how they will work and the practical measures to deliver an acceleration of jobs and homes.
A key element in making them work is planning. For years we have been told that the planning system needs to be streamlined and simplified. But, as we have sometimes come to expect with proposed changes, the government’s strategy document promises more detail in “due course”.
However, we are told that in Investment Zones the intention is to remove burdensome requirements, focus developer contributions on essential infrastructure requirements, reduce lengthy consultation with statutory bodies and relax key national and local policy requirements.
Interestingly, there are a few areas identified where this “planning liberation” will not occur. This includes policies to ensure well-designed development, protection of green belt, heritage, flood risk, highways and other public safety matters. It will be an interesting tension between seeking to deregulate and liberalise planning while ensuring controls on achieving high-quality design and protection of the green belt as these are often the topics that cause delay and those most likely to trigger public response.
The strategy makes it clear that there is a sense of urgency for Investment Zones, with expressions of interests required by 14 October. Mention is made of local consents being required, but it is not clear whether that will extend to the individual district authorities where the Investment Zones will sit, and where the local planning policies currently apply. Subject to the detail coming in due course, district authorities may find they have limited influence. This tension may hinder progress.
It also identified that there was an opportunity to make changes to those applications already in the system, again demonstrating the desire to move quickly. Further detail on this will be set out in due course.
In practice, there are likely to be several hurdles to overcome when envisaging such significant changes to planning in these Investment Zones. These range from the introduction of new legislation, change to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations, habitat regulations and the National Planning Policy Framework, streamlining consultation and change to statutory consultee responses.
There is a question as to how well this will sit with the wider electorate who had previously been promised a less top-down approach. However, we do know that making amendments to the planning system is much easier to talk about than to deliver.
Hopefully, though, it will lead to real change. The renewed desire for growth and local promotion of Investment Zones will be a very positive impetus for change. Those areas that have a clear plan and understanding of what is needed in their area 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 bring about clear benefits, there may need to be cross-authority collaboration and a wider regional view. In areas with combined authorities, this co-ordination might be there, albeit it may not currently include planning powers. However, this is not the case in all areas and voluntary co-operation can sometimes be challenging.
We know that more detail is to come. There are some key areas where this detail will be critical to achieving a successful growth strategy, including:
• Tension over EU legacy regulations and the risks of legal challenges/Judicial Review.
• Design versus flexibility and streamlining planning as design is such an emotive issue;.
• Will these changes to planning speed up the planning system as a whole, ie beyond Investment Zones, or just cause wider stagnation and delay?
• The 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, which has been promised for years?
However, it would be great if these hurdles could be overcome and for planning to join the wider fiscal benefits to speed up economic growth across the country.
Julia Chowings is planning partner in Gerald Eve’s national planning and development team