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05 Jun
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The UK planning system and the Queen’s Speech 2014: What will the impact be?

Yesterday saw the annual state opening of parliament and the Queen’s Speech setting out the government’s legislative programme up until the next election. While the proposals on pensions and the recall of MPs will no doubt grab the headlines, we’ve learnt by now that the coalition can’t resist tinkering with the planning system. So what changes could be in store?

Planning and property was covered in just two sentences of the speech:

‘My government will increase housing supply and home ownership by reforming the planning system, enabling new locally-led garden cities and supporting small house building firms.  Legislation will be brought forward to sell high value government land, encouraging development and increasing housing.’

Despite that brevity, detail on how this will be achieved can be found on the government website’s summary of the proposed Infrastructure Bill.

Fracking

The most high profile element of the Bill will be proposals for ‘simplifying and streamlining the underground access regime.’  This isn’t a Great Escape-inspired decision to make life easier for Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, but an attempt to keep the nation’s lights on by making life easier for companies, like Cuadrilla, who are looking to exploit shale gas reserves through fracking.

Zero Carbon Homes

This is the element of the Bill that is likely to be of most interest to the home building industry, and follows work by the Home Builders Federation to draw the government’s attention to the numerous obstacles the industry still faces with trying to deliver the number of homes the country needs.

While the government claims to remain committed to delivering ‘Zero Carbon Homes’ by 2016, the Bill will re-define the Zero Carbon Home standard as Level 5 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, rather than the Level 6 used currently.  That will be a relief to the house building industry which has long been baffled as to exactly how Code Level 6 can be achieved.  But Level 5 is still very onerous.

The government tacitly acknowledges this by proposing to set a minimum energy performance target through the building regulations and allowing the remainder of the Zero Carbon energy requirements to be met through the use of ‘allowable solutions.’  These are off-site measures which reduce carbon emissions and can therefore be a more cost-effective way of achieving the targets.

So, although the Zero Carbon Home standard is to be set at Level 5 of the Code, developers will be allowed to build to Level 4 (as many already do) provided they use allowable solutions to meet the difference in carbon emissions.

Small sites (which are yet to be defined) will be exempt from the zero carbon home standard altogether.

Planning Conditions

The HBF has also been keen to point out to government that even when planning permission is granted, more and more conditions are being added to decision notices.  These can take time to discharge with no real pressure on local planning authorities to approve them.  The Bill therefore intends to allow some planning conditions to be deemed as discharged if the local planning authority hasn’t determined the application within the prescribed time period.

This won’t relate to every type of condition as some often relate to statutory obligations on local authorities and will therefore need to be exempted.  But in the case of more discretionary conditions, perhaps relating to matters such as material choices and landscape designs, this will be of some assistance.

And The Rest…

There are other, more prosaic, provisions relating to restructures for the Highways Agency and Land Registry, while there will be new legislation to prevent the spread of invasive species, like Japanese Knotweed. 

Efforts will also be made to streamline the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects.  There is no mention of Garden Cities in the summary of the Bill, so perhaps this is the change the government think will help them deliver. 

Finally, the Bill will also aim to make more public sector land available for development by easing its transfer from arms-length public bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency, who will manage its disposal.

A Revolution?

So it appears there is no sign of revolution after all.  Any changes that make the planning system more streamlined and less onerous are always going to be welcomed.  But these proposals aren’t going to result in the approximate doubling of house building rates the country needs to see before it starts meeting the need for new homes.  Now that would be a revolution…

What do you think of the proposed Infrastructure Bill? We're always keen to hear from you, so leave your comments below or give us a shout on Twitter.

And if you're looking for advice on how forthcoming legislation could impact the planning system or any aspect of planning law, be sure to get in touch with NJL today.

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