Housing targets and zonal planning ‘to be ditched’

The government has reconsidered plans for binding housebuilding targets on locals councils and a more zonal planning system, following a backlash from voters and Tory MPs in southern England, according to newspaper reports.

Saturday's Times reported that, under proposals in the Planning White Paper, the government “had intended to rip up the planning application process and replace it with a zonal system, stripping homeowners of their rights to object to new houses”. Local plans would be simplified, focused on identifying three categories of land: ‘growth areas’ suitable for substantial development, ‘renewal areas’ suitable for lesser development, and ‘protected areas’.

In growth areas, outline planning approval would be granted automatically for types of development specified in each plan.

But in May, ministers were warned of “considerable disquiet” by Conservative backbenchers over the emerging Planning Bill, which was expected to be based on the white paper. One MP described the plan to limit public input at the application stage as providing opponents with a potential rallying cry of “save local democracy from the Tories”. Consultation would instead be emphasised during the formation of local plans.

In June, the Commons’ Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee called on ministers to think again. But subsequent comments from housing minister Christopher Pincher suggested that the government was still committed to elements of the zonal approach, though Labour MP Daniel Zeichner said there is “no obvious answer” as to how it would be compatible with enforcing biodiversity net gain.

The Times now says that this system is “likely to be dropped” from the forthcoming Planning Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May. In its place, councils could be asked to designate ‘growth sites’ with a presumption in favour of development, with planning applications within them fast-tracked.

Ministers are also expected to abandon their intention to impose mandatory housebuilding targets, based on a controversial ‘algorithm’. This would take account of local constraints on delivery when allocating where 300,000 homes should be built each year, such as affordability, green belt designations and availability of brownfield land.

The current system itself has generated opposition itself, leading to large swathes of greenfield land being earmarked for development – most notably close to the Knepp rewilding estate.

The u-turns are an apparent response to the Conservatives’ shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election this June, where the Liberal Democrat candidate overturned a majority of 16,000. The defeat was put down to opposition to housebuilding in the area. 

Planning barrister Chris Young QC, of No5 Chambers said at the time that going ahead with the reforms would tantamount to electoral suicide: “If you do this, you might as well give every local authority to the Lib Dems, and hand a load of blue wall seats to the Lib Dems”.

Paul Miner, head of land use and planning at countryside charity CPRE, said it was an “important win” for the organisation, though “big changes are in the pipeline. We can still expect an infrastructure levy, there is a high need for rural affordable homes and the Government has to improve its policies on planning and the climate emergency.”

The government’s response to consultation on the white paper was due to be published this spring, though was pushed back to the autumn by housing secretary Robert Jenrick back in July.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government refused to comment on speculation over what will emerge, saying that the response will “be released in due course.”

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