There are two major sets of planning reforms currently being considered, both of which could affect rural landowners in England in various ways, if they are enacted or policy is brought in.
The first reform is the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is in the House of Lords for its second reading. Its remit goes well beyond just planning, as it aims to advance the Government’s levelling up agenda, by spreading economic opportunity and better living standards across the country, including reducing environmental disparities.
Additional powers are to be given both to new combined county authorities and to local communities, with the aims of bringing about regeneration, including through a planning system which places beauty, democracy, adopted local plans, the environment and neighbourhoods at its heart. The Bill does not contain the detail on how these changes would happen in practice; we will have to wait for secondary legislation (and also consider proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”), as outlined below).
The Bill looks at replacing the existing EU environmental systems of Environmental Impact Assessments and Strategic Environmental Assessments with Environmental Outcome Reports, but again, the detail is to be left to secondary legislation.
The countryside does not currently feature in the Bill, as many rural action groups had hoped. Such groups are lobbying for rural areas and countryside designations to be given additional protections in the future law, rather than to be left (often in vague terms) to the NPPF and other policies.
The second set of reforms, which will be of more relevance and interest to the readers of Agricultural Lore, are those proposed to the NPPF. A consultation document was issued just before Christmas, which looked at both the above Bill and current and future changes to the NPPF. Alongside this consultation a tracked change version of the NPPF was published, manifesting what the Government considers to be the initial, quick fix, policy amendments.
One of the most important changes to some rural estates will be the proposal for food security provisions to be factored into decisions affecting farmland. More detail and ways of strengthening this are being discussed.
Landowners considering selling land for development will also be interested in the proposed changes to weaken and make more flexible the existing housing needs requirements. This includes greater flexibility over green belts, which will not need to be reviewed, even if meeting the identified local housing need would then be impossible. It seems that the Government’s aspirations of meeting housing needs targets will be kicked into the long grass. This, together with the proposed changes to the 5-year housing supply and the Housing Delivery test are likely to slow down the delivery of new homes. This is rather ironic, as the Government seems intent on penalising developers, who have been or try to build out sites too slowly.
Other relevant amendments proposed to the NPPF now include a warning against any developers trying to “game” the Biodiversity Net Gain system by clearing sites before the connected application is submitted.
Changes of a procedural nature, which would affect all landowners, may follow after a further round of consultation on the new National Development Management Policies. These centralised policies would contain planning considerations, which apply regularly in decision making – the first round of consultation would be on how the policies would work and then additional consultations would be carried out on each new policy. The current wording in the NPPF in these policy areas would be the starting point for consultation and would be followed by consultations on each new policy itself. The future NPPF would then be focused on the principles of plan making.
The proposals cover a wide range of topics and landowners are encouraged to read the consultation document and respond by 11.45 pm on 2 March.