23 November, 2023
New Statesman, by Megan Kenyon

ver the years, numerous chancellors, prime ministers and housing secretaries have promised to remove “red tape” and fix the UK’s broken planning system. A similar promise featured in Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-Budget in September 2022, and in yesterday’s Autumn Statement, Jeremy Hunt announced his plan to do the same.

Fixing the planning system (the Jeremy Hunt Version) includes confirmation that the government will allow councils and local planning authorities to set planning fees for major developments. This means that in future, planning authorities will be able to charge a direct fee to the developer of a major project for a planning application. Currently, fees for planning applications for major and non-major developments are set by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, rather than by the planning authority itself. A deadline will then be agreed by the planning authority and the developer, by which time a decision on the application must have been made. If there is no decision by the deadline, the developer can expect a full refund.

Hunt’s statement also included £110m in funding for schemes to offset nutrient neutrality, and £32m to “bust the planning backlog” which will go directly to planning authorities. An extra £5m has been added to the levelling-up department’s planning skills delivery fund. Hunt also announced an expansion of permitted development rights, meaning developers and property owners can make changes to their properties without going through planning processes. For example, a landlord will now be able to split their house into two flats without obtaining planning permission.

Indeed, ensuring the UK has a well-functioning planning system is an essential part of solving the housing crisis, and of building the electrical and power infrastructure needed to reach net zero. Due to the way applications are currently given the green light, it can take up to 15 years for a new project to connect to the National Grid.

Analysis by the think tank Britain Remade features heavily in the plan for infrastructure (“Getting Britain building Again: speeding up infrastructure delivery“) which accompanied the Autumn Statement. Britain Remade has previously pointed out that environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for nationally significant infrastructure projects can stretch across thousands of pages. For example, the EIA for the Sizewell C nuclear plant was 44,260 pages long – “more than 30 times longer than the complete works of Shakespeare”.

Of course, these reforms lay some promising groundwork for a future Labour government. At the party’s annual conference in October, Rachel Reeves unveiled her plan to “get Britain building again“. The shadow chancellor’s announcement included reforms similar to Hunt’s, such as dramatically reducing the time taken for major applications to be given a decision, and offering community benefits for accepting new infrastructure. (The Autumn Statement included a pledge to offer funding to communities where new infrastructure is built. Properties closest to new power lines will receive up to £1,000 a year off their energy bills, and communities hosting pylons will be given money for projects in the local area.)

The grid and infrastructure-related aspects of the Autumn Statement’s action on planning were well received. Maya Singer-Hobbs, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), said “changes to speed up grid connections are particularly welcome”. But she described the planning announcements in the Autumn Statement as a “mixed bag”. Singer-Hobbs was critical in particular of the expansion of permitted development rights. “Allowing houses to be cut up into flats might make a small dent in the housing crisis, but as IPPR has argued previously, this can lead to poor quality properties,” she added, and described it as “bad news.”

The £32m allocated to clearing the planning backlog, and £5m for planning recruitment, were also welcomed. Victoria Hills, chief executive at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) said Hunt had given planning the “time and significance it deserves”. But she added that the institute “eagerly awaits further information” on the £32m to clear the backlog.

Still, an increase in funding may not fix the planning system. According to the RTPI, there has been a 43 per cent drop in resources to the system since 2009-10, and research from the Local Government Chronicle earlier this year revealed that only one in ten council planning departments are fully staffed. The Housing Forum industry body pointed out on Twitter/X that the extra £5m for recruitment will fund half a new planner per local planning authority.

Recruitment and retention must drastically improve within public-sector planning for it to cope with the workload. And with a shorter time frame now being implemented for decisions on major applications, some planning authorities may now be asked to do more with less.

Hunt did more with this budget than many of his predecessors in padding out what the government’s plans to cut planning red tape actually are. But the bar was low, and crucial details remain lacking from the Chancellor’s statement.