2 July 2020

Project Speed: “to build better; to build greener; to build faster”

Giving a speech on 30 June 2020, Boris Johnson declared the UK government’s intention to deliver “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war” as it attempts to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ambitiously titled Project Speed, the government’s proposals include a £5 billion capital investment package focused on schools, hospitals, roads, rail development and “shovel ready” local growth projects, as well as amendments to the General Permitted Development Order from August to allow blocks of flats of more than three storeys to be extended upwards by an additional two storeys. Further regulations are to be introduced in September to extend permitted development rights as follows:

  1. to enable vacant and redundant commercial buildings (including shops) and residential buildings to be demolished and replaced with new homes;
  2. to allow a wider range of commercial buildings to change to residential use; and
  3. to enable homeowners to build upwards via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.

The government is also proposing a reform of the Use Classes Order to give commercial premises “total flexibility” to be repurposed for another commercial use without requiring any form of planning application or prior approval. Pubs, libraries, village shops and other types of uses deemed to be “essential to the lifeblood of communities” would be excluded from this change.

Further details regarding the government’s plan for a “comprehensive reform” of the planning system are to be announced in the government’s planning Policy Paper in July, followed by a Local Recovery White Paper later this year.

Despite the government’s rhetoric, the latest announcements seem unambitious in scope. Whilst the details are yet to be ironed out (and the devil is always in the detail), what has been proposed so far amounts to little more than tinkering with the current planning system rather than the wholescale reform that had been promised in recent weeks. Certainly, there is no mention of the new zonal approach to planning touted by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick back in March and it is hard to reconcile these latest tweaks to the system with any imminent reforms of that scale. We may also find that the new regulations are ultimately not as flexible as promised, with controls being put in place by way of prior approvals (as is the case with the new controls being proposed for upwards extensions of blocks of flats), or with individual local planning authorities applying for Article 4 Directions to withdraw the new rights in certain areas.

Having said that, the proposals are not without merit. They will go some way to enabling better use of vacant office space and commercial properties, which is only likely to increase as the shape of the working world changes post-COVID-19. And they will undoubtedly increase certainty for developers by reducing red tape and what Johnson calls “Newt-counting delays”. However, the proposals do seem at odds with the Prime Minister’s other stated ambitions – to build “greener” and to build more beautifully.

Moreover, they highlight the government’s continued commitment to rely on permitted development for the delivery of new homes – an interesting decision given the widespread criticism of the existing office to residential permitted development policy. One 2018 report into the functioning of the planning system by former housing minister Nick Raynsford found that the prior approval process for office to residential conversions, in bypassing planning requirements on issues such as space standards, affordable housing, play space and school provision, was “creating the real and alarming prospect of a new generation of slums”. Sadiq Khan has also repeatedly spoken out on this issue, arguing in February that the permitted development rights should either be devolved to London or be scrapped on the grounds that they were contributing to a shortage of viable business space, lower levels of affordable housing and creating unsuitable and substandard housing.

The government’s decision to extend permitted development rights in light of these criticisms raises concerns that its commitment to tackle the housing shortage and support the high street revival will come at the price of quality and strategic placemaking. The new proposals do ensure that such conversions no longer result in rooms with less than “adequate” natural light, but that does not address space standards or mitigate the impact of such developments in terms of affordable housing or section 106 contributions. If the extension of permitted development rights is the government’s main source of housing delivery then it would be sensible to ensure that Community Infrastructure Levy is payable for such conversions and to implement measures requiring developers to deliver affordable housing. No such proposals have yet come forward. Nor does there seem to be any strategic plan for high streets, which – given the latest reforms – are likely to look very different in the years to come.

So which of Johnson’s pledges to build “better” “greener” or “faster” takes priority? I think the clue is in the name when it comes to Project Speed.

Laura Parrish is a Senior Associate in our Planning team.

Disclaimer

The current global crisis is evolving rapidly, and the rules and guidance for individuals, companies and other entities to manage its implications are similarly fast moving. Notes such as this may be out of date almost as soon as they are published. If you have any questions prompted by this article or on any other matter relevant to you, please get in touch with your usual contact at Forsters.

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