Bills, bills, bills: how is levelling up shaping up?
You might not have realised it but there is a key bill going through parliament that is due to impact on planning and the countryside. Andrew Wood sums up the story so far.
It’s been a long time coming, but the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (let’s call it ‘the bill’, for short) has now had its second reading in parliament. The bill is not the easiest read, but many of us in CPRE and beyond have dosed up on caffeine and worked through its 340 pages.
In a nutshell, the angels and devils are in details that we haven’t seen yet.
CPRE has a dual role here: our own agenda concerning the future of the countryside, and also convening the Better Planning Coalition, which brings together 27 organisations across the housing, planning, environmental, transport and heritage sectors. Through the coalition, we developed six key tests by which to judge the planning reforms, asking whether there would be benefits in the following areas: local democracy and community engagement; affordable housing; climate and sustainable development; biodiversity and nature recovery; beauty and heritage; health, wellbeing and access to green space.
The big mistakes
There are two deep-seated, fundamental problems with the bill. First, it is virtually silent on the biggest challenge of all, the climate emergency. As recent CPRE research showed, most local plans are not setting strategic, measurable targets for delivering net-zero carbon, and homes and business premises are still being built that are car-dependent and will require costly retrofitting for net zero. We want the bill to require national and local planning to be subject to a ‘net zero test’ to address this.
Secondly, the bill has not given local authorities new powers to influence the amounts and types of housing built in their area. Since 2011, local authorities have been set up to fail by planning for massively overambitious housing targets. This has made local plans more difficult to adopt and led to an increase in large-scale car-dependent developments on greenfield sites, while the real need – for social housing – has not been tackled.
Ministers’ previous pledge to make housebuilding targets mandatory would have made matters worse, but real reforms enabling councils to prioritise social housing and reduce car-dependence are absent.
Room for improvement
The flagship levelling up project is delegated to a series of ‘missions’ which were set out in February’s levelling up white paper but can be changed at will by the government of the day. Regeneration is principally dealt with by some tweaks to the new towns and urban development corporations legislation. Importantly, the bill sets out the legislative changes to enable the planning reforms which CPRE has been working hard to influence since the planning white paper was published in 2020.
The bill provides for new ‘national development management policies’ (NDMPs). In principle, these could make local plans simpler and avoid the pantomime calls of ‘oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t’ when considering whether a local plan policy is consistent with national policy.
However, clause 83 of the bill takes a big step too far, by giving NDMPs legal primacy over an existing local plan. This is a significant, centralising power grab, which could seriously undermine local democratic scrutiny of planning policy. Unsurprisingly, clause 83 is a key focus of the campaign for amendments to the bill.
The most complex change is the replacement of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) with a new Environmental Outcomes Report (EOR). (Had enough three-letter abbreviations yet?) To some extent this change is a direct consequence of Brexit, because SEA and EIA are European legislation, and the bill does state that new EOR regulations won’t result in a lowering of environmental standards.
But there are two major concerns. First, the EOR provisions are run through with ‘Henry VIII powers’ – giving the secretary of state the ability to amend or repeal legislation in the future without needing an act of parliament. This could, over time, lead to the UK diverging from international law and weakening safeguards for wildlife and pollution.
Secondly, the NDMPs are not subject to EOR assessment, which means that a local plan or neighbourhood plan – which is assessed – could be prevented from fulfilling its environmental commitments by national policies that aren’t assessed. That makes no sense.
Not forgetting the good news
It’s important to remember we’re looking for improvement against the existing planning system, not against the planning white paper proposals, though we should note that two especially controversial white paper proposals have been dropped. These involved replacing the ‘discretionary’ planning system with a zonal approach in which outline planning permission could be automatically granted in some areas; and setting mandatory, top-down housebuilding targets. These are significant campaigning wins for CPRE and the coalition, but we shouldn’t count our chickens, since elements of both could still emerge through policy rather than legislation.
The bill will make Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) easier to use, which should enable local authorities to bring more brownfield sites forward and to acquire more land for social housing. Alongside this a new infrastructure levy should, in theory, channel developer contributions into providing more affordable housing and community facilities. But we also think the government needs to do much more to help local authorities provide more social homes, particularly in many rural areas where our recent research found there are as many properties being advertised for short-term holiday lets as there are people on the housing waiting list.
The digitisation of the planning system and how we access it should be a real step forward too. Anyone who has tried to analyse a local plan map or read supporting documents for a planning application knows how difficult it can be. However, the bill only really covers how data will be standardised, and does not give any indication as to how the consultation and decision-making processes will actually be opened up to a more diverse audience using digital tools.
What happens next?
A number of MPs are tabling proposed amendments to the bill, and with the Better Planning Coalition we are working to influence that process. This will take several months, after which the new act will come into force and – returning to those angels and devils in the details – we will move on to shaping secondary legislation and policy.