Following rumours that the Planning Bill has now been scrapped and that the ‘tidying up’ of the planning system will instead be made through levelling-up legislation, the Levelling Up White Paper has taken on far greater significance.

Simon Atha

Simon Atha

In the summer of 2020, following the publication of the Planning White Paper, we had high hopes for the reform of the planning system – something that was urgently required to address the housing crisis, specifically the shortage of affordable housing and pockets of activity on high streets and elsewhere throughout the country.

Yet in the months since, it has become clear that any reforms will be substantially watered down.

February’s Levelling Up White Paper now appears to be the main vehicle by which reforms to the planning system can take place. However, it contains very few details. We have a policy vacuum that continues to create uncertainty, affecting planning and the progress of Local Plans in particular.

The development industry has long been pushing for the ‘principle’ of development to be established through the Local Plan process. This would involve each local planning authority creating growth areas in their Local Plans, within which sites would be automatically granted outline planning permission.

But concerns were raised about this aspect of the Planning White Paper, specifically a reduction of public involvement in the planning process. And defeat at last year’s Chesham and Amersham by-election focused the government’s mind on greenfield development.

The Levelling Up White Paper’s focus on brownfield prioritisation is not new and has been the policy of successive governments over the past 30 years. But while brownfield sites are important, the strategy of ‘brownfield first’ has failed to tackle the housing crisis; in fact, it has exacerbated it. And the air of uncertainty around planning reform will make matters worse still.

Unfortunately, it appears that the government has lost both the ambition and political capital to follow through on the reforms it proposed when it first took office.

Simon Atha is an associate director in Boyer’s Midlands office