Gove 'tells Tory MPs that Planning Bill has been scrapped'

The housing secretary has apparently told backbench Tory MPs that the government has scrapped plans for a standalone planning bill to deliver many of the planning white paper proposals, according to national newspaper reports, and will instead “tidy up the planning system” via levelling up legislation.

Last May's Queen's Speech, setting out the government's legislative intentions for the coming year, included the introduction of a planning bill, which was intended to include many provisions consulted on as part of the planning white paper.

However, immediately after his appointment in September, it was reported that the housing secretary, Michael Gove, had "paused" the impending shake-up of the planning system, which would be delivered via the new planning bill, while a review was carried out.

There has been increasing speculation that controversial aspects of the white paper were being either watered down or axed.

In October, Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden confirmed that the government was "looking again" at the white paper proposals, including controversial 'growth zones'.

The planning white paper set out that in 'growth' areas - one of three proposed new land use designations - the adoption of a local plan would confer outline planning permission, a move strongly opposed by some planning campaigners and Conservative backbenchers.

Many backbench Tory and opposition MPs had raised concerns that the proposals would mean less elected councillor scrutiny over individual planning applications and less public involvement in the planning process.

In January, a government submission to a House of Lords select inquiry suggested that the proposal had been watered down. It said that even in growth areas "all the details" of individual applications would be consulted on before approval by officers or committees.

There has also been speculation about the fate of the planning bill. Speaking at Planning's Planning for Housing conference in November, the then housing minister Christopher Pincher said that the government's "final response" to the planning white paper and related legislation would "probably" come forward in the "earlier part of next year".

Also in November, Gove told the cross-party housing, communities and local government select committee that he would be bringing forward legislation, but he wasn't specific on the timescale or the form.

Now, it has been reported that Gove has told MPs that the government will not bring forward a planning bill, and that the growth zone proposals have been scrapped.

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Gove told 45 Tory MPs at a private meeting last week "that he had decided not to proceed with a major separate piece of planning legislation to put the reforms into law. Instead, more limited changes to planning rules will be incorporated as part of a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which will be set out in the Queen's Speech in the spring."

According to the paper, Gove also told the meeting that the growth zones are now "definitely not going to happen".

The paper quoted a source saying that the news was a "partial retreat", adding that it was clear the white paper proposals had been "watered down". Gove "was indicating that some of the most radical proposals that were in the white paper will now no longer find their way into the Bill", the Telegraph quoted the source as saying.

However, the paper also quoted one MP warning that "other controversial reforms also had to go, such as the 'algorithms' which calculate housing need and can impose large-scale developments on small communities in the South".

This refers to proposals, first mooted in the planning white paper, for the creation of a new "standard method" formula which – unlike the current one – took account of local constraints on delivery to produce "binding" local housing targets that local authorities would have to meet.

The unnamed MP said: "We still need assurances that other problematic elements of those proposals will be scrapped too. And we need changes to the current system of housing targets which are creating intolerable pressure for over-development."

The paper quoted a separate source saying: "There will be some sensible measures to tidy up the planning system in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in the next Queen's Speech."

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to confirm or deny the claims made in the article.

However, a spokesperson said: "We continue to keep the planning system under review to ensure it is best equipped to level up the country. Any changes will be announced in due course."

Lawrence Turner, associate director at planning consultancy Boyer, said: "If it is the case that there will no longer be a Planning Bill, this represents a missed opportunity for the government. Planning reforms and improvements are key to the government’s levelling up agenda, not least to getting anywhere close to delivering 300,000 homes a year and meeting the UK’s climate targets.

"Without a planning bill, this leaves many of the government’s previous commitments unanswered - specifically around standard methodology for calculating housing need; community infrastructure levy; fast-tracking of brownfield sites and permission in principle."  

A recent analysis article on the apparent government dropping of the "growth area" proposal can be found here.

This article originally appeared in ENDS Report's sister title Planning Magazine