Planning in principle?

The Government’s drive to get Britain building new homes continues.  The recently launched consultation on implementing measures in the Housing and Planning Bill contains a raft of initiatives to speed up the planning process, increase efficiency and unlock development. The consultation covers a wide range of matters in considerable detail.  This blog and our regular Planning Bulletins will look at these extensively as the proposals develop.  For starters, though, let’s take a quick look at one of the big issues to emerge from the consultation - the Government’s proposals for planning permission ‘in principle’. In a bid to mitigate the risk and reduce the upfront costs involved in promoting land for development, the Bill introduces an ‘in principle’ route for obtaining planning permission so that the principle of development need only be established once (rather than at various stages throughout the application process). Permission in principle would be available following an allocation in a qualifying document - a future local plan, neighbourhood plan or brownfield register - or, for smaller sites (i.e. minor development), upon application. Matters to be determined at the ‘in principle’ stage would be location, use (limited to housing with compatible, associated commercial, retail and community uses) and scale.  Full planning permission would be treated as having been granted only upon the approval of technical details including design, access and infrastructure.  The parameters for these technical details would be described at the ‘in principle’ stage.  Environmental Impact Assessment, heritage issues and the usual consultation requirements would still come into play. Consistent with the Government’s aspirations to get developments off the ground as quickly as possible, the timescales it proposes are keen.  Maximum determination periods would be set at five weeks for ‘in principle’ applications and applications for approval of details on smaller sites and ten weeks for the approval of details on larger sites.  Similarly, developers will need to ensure they can act quickly.  Permissions ‘in principle’ granted on allocation would be valid for five years, whilst permissions granted on application would remain live for either one or three years (both options are currently under consideration).  Approvals of technical details would last for three years. The Government is keen to draw attention to the benefits of the ‘in principle’ system.  It expects to increase the likelihood of suitable sites being developed, rid the system of applications that are unsuitable in principle and reduce the time spent reappraising the principle of development at different points in the process. This all sounds attractive, subject to a couple of important caveats.  First, major developments can only obtain ‘in principle’ consent through allocation in a future qualifying document (site allocations in existing local plans, for example, won’t benefit retrospectively).  This introduces barriers to entry on the basis of timing - entries are limited to the plan preparation stage - as well as the very real risk that the ‘in principle’ allocation itself becomes bogged down and delayed in the document preparation process.  Developers will need to be alive to planning authorities’ document preparation timelines.  Second - as always - for the ‘in principle’ route to deliver on the Government’s promises, decision-making timescales will need to be adhered to.  With planning authorities’ resources as stretched as they are, this may be easier said than done. Hogan Lovells' latest Planning Bulletin summarises the consultation in full. The consultation closes on 15 April 2016.

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