Briefing from Friends of Wimbledon Town Centre
Changes to the planning system: permitted development, local planning and neighbourhood planning
Friends of Wimbledon Town Centre and other campaigners for higher standards of development depend on the planning system. That system is now to be radically changed in the interests, the government says, of encouraging more building, especially of housing.
The government wants to change the planning system to make development easier. There are two aspects to this. First, the scope of ‘permitted development’ has been increased, and will be increased further. This means that some developments that in the past needed planning permission no longer need it. Where until now residents could oppose development they did not want, or try to persuade Merton Council to insist on higher standards of development, in some cases they will no longer be able to do so.
Second, the government has published a white paper, Planning for the Future, which sets out proposals for radically changing other major aspects of the planning system. The implications of this are not certain. The proposals are out for consultation, so may change; in some cases the government is considering more than one option; and the government’s proposals for some aspects of the planning system have not yet been published.
The main idea behind the white paper is that local plans and neighbourhood plans should be much more specific about what they are looking for; they should specify and illustrate what development will look like in a specific place, using design codes and other design guidance; and the sensitivity of the planning system will be determined by which of three types of zone a particular site is in.
If developers propose development that conforms to what has been specified, that development will receive planning permission without planners and councillors using their discretion to assess it against planning policies, and with less opportunity for local objections. The idea is that public consultation and the role of councillors will come earlier in the process, when the specifics in the local plan are agreed. What is not clear is how that consultation, on principles rather than actual development proposals, will work.
The following pages summarise some of the proposals, and suggest some questions that need to be asked if we are to understand what impact the changes could have on planning and development in Wimbledon.
These changes to planning law have already been made. Permitted development is quite complicated, some of it is still unclear and there is a great deal that is not covered here. So don’t depend on this summary as the last word.
Existing, purpose-built detached blocks of flats
A new permitted development right allows construction of up to two additional storeys on a block of flats, subject to ‘prior approval’ from the local planning authority (which is much easier to obtain than planning permission) and certain exclusions. The storeys must be residential and immediately above the existing top floor. The overall height of the roof of the extended building must not be more than seven metres higher than the highest part of the existing roof, and the extended building must not be greater than 30 metres high.
The new rights will only apply to a purpose-built, detached block of flats, and not to a mixed-use building whose ground floor is a non-residential use.
Property owners will be able to build additional space above their homes through a fast-track approval process, subject to consultation with neighbours. (It is not clear what this consultation will involve, and what approval will be needed if a neighbour objects.)
Two storeys may be added if the existing building is two or more storeys high, or one additional storey where the building consists of one storey.
The existing building must have been constructed after 1 July 1948 and before 5 March 2018. The maximum roof height is 18 metres. Where the house is in a terrace, its height cannot be more than 3.5 metres higher than the next tallest house in the terrace.
Demolishing buildings and the construction of new homes in their place
A new right allows for vacant commercial and residential buildings to be demolished to make way for new housing, again subject to prior approval from the local planning authority (which is much easier to obtain than planning permission).
The old building must have a footprint of no larger than 1,000 square metres and be no higher than 18 metres. It must have been built before 1990. It must not be within a conservation area, national park, area of outstanding natural beauty or site of special scientific interest. It must have been vacant for at least six months.
Permitted development is to be extended to cover a pattern book approach, allowing the pre-approval of ‘popular and replicable designs’ through permitted development. This would be through a limited set of form-based development types that allow the redevelopment of existing residential buildings, enabling increased densities ‘while maintaining visual harmony’. Local orders could be used to tailor the standard designs to local areas based on local popularity.
WHITE PAPER: PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
The planning white paper has been published for consultation, so at present these are just the government’s proposals. This summary focuses on some of the issues that are likely to relate to Wimbledon. Many other issues are covered in the white paper as a whole.
Local plans will identify three types of area:
In a growth area, suitable for substantial development, outline approval for development will be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the plan.
In a renewal area, as Wimbledon town centre is likely to be, higher densities of development are likely to be favoured.
In protected areas, including conservation areas, development will be more restricted.
The white paper says that the proposals will change the planning process to allow more effective consultation at the plan-making stage, with generally less of a role for objections to planning applications.
Local plans will be based more on maps and images, rather than (as at present) policies that need to be interpreted in relation to specific planning applications.
New development will be expected to be ‘beautiful’, and to create a ‘net gain’ not just ‘no net harm’, with a greater focus on ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places’.
Local plans will have to set clear expectations on what is required on land that is identified for development.
In growth and renewal areas, the local plan will set out suitable development uses, as well as limitations on height and/or density, as relevant. The areas could include sub-areas, such as areas for higher-density residential development, and for high streets and town centres to be identified as distinct areas.
Local planning authorities and neighbourhood forums will draw up design guides and design codes. These will cover ‘local character, and preferences about the form and appearance of development’.
Outline and detailed planning permission
In renewal areas, such as Wimbledon town centre is likely to be, there will be ‘a general presumption in favour of development’. Planning permission will be granted ‘for pre-specified forms of development automatic consent under a fast track to beauty process’. The ‘fast track for beauty’ will provide a quicker planning process for proposals for high-quality developments where they reflect local character and preferences.
There will be ‘a faster planning application process where a planning application will be determined in the context of the local plan description, for what development the area or site is appropriate for, and with reference to the National Planning Policy Framework’. (What that means is not clear.) And where a local or neighbourhood development order has been created, specifying what sort of development will be acceptable, planning permission will be granted for development that accords with that.
In protected areas, including conservation areas, individual planning applications will be considered in much the same way as they are at present.
Neighbourhood forums will continue to be able to prepare neighbourhood plans. How these would work alongside the designation of growth, renewal and protected areas, and with design codes and ‘fast track for beauty’ is not clear.
Design codes will set out detailed parameters for development in different types of location: they will cover issues such as the arrangement and proportions of streets and urban blocks, the positioning and hierarchy of public spaces, parking arrangements, the placement of street trees, and cycling and walking provision, among other matters.
Design codes and other design guidance will be prepared locally with community involvement. They may be prepared by local planning authorities to supplement and add a visual dimension to their local plans; through the work of neighbourhood planning groups; or by applicants who are bringing forward proposals for significant new areas of development.
The Environment Bill currently before Parliament will legislate for mandatory net gains for biodiversity as a condition of most new development.
The following are some of the questions that arise:
Property owners will be able to build additional space above their homes through a fast-track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation. What does the phrase ‘subject to neighbour consultation’ mean in this context? Will it mean that neighbours are merely informed and given the opportunity to make representation to the local authority? Will the local authorities be able to determine the application in the ordinary way, overriding the permitted development right in those circumstances?
The white paper
Neighbourhood forums will continue to be able to prepare neighbourhood plans. How will these work alongside the designation of growth, renewal and protected areas, and with design codes and the ‘fast track for beauty’?
The content of neighbourhood plans ‘should become more focused’. What does that mean? How will development standards be specified?
Who will decide, and how will it be decided, which areas of land are put into which new categories in the local plan: growth, renewal or protected? (These designations will be crucial, as there will be a ‘statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable in each area’.)
Who specifies/decides which uses will be ‘suitable in each area’?
On page 29, bullet point 2, examples are given of sites or areas which might fall into the ‘protected’ category and therefore require ‘more stringent development controls’, such as conservation areas. Why is there no mention of historic or listed buildings? The white paper says that ‘some areas would be defined nationally, others locally’. How will that work?
How will the new system prevent the present situation where the ‘call for sites’ (the process in which developers and landowners put forward their land for consideration) leads to a wild scattering of proposed sites, rather than a sensible and cohesive settlement pattern that enables walking and cycling for most journeys (in line with the government’s Gear Change document)?
Historic buildings and places
Protection zones may be used for conservation areas, but how will listed buildings and their setting be protected outside of these?
Will towns be carved up into zones of individual buildings if necessary? Conversely, how can inclusion within a protection zone be prevented from stifling compatible development? (Heritage-led regeneration is an important economic catalyst in many town centres, and conservation does not need to be exclusive of growth.)
The white paper says that there will be ‘a faster planning application process where a planning application will be determined in the context of the local plan description, for what development the area or site is appropriate for, and with reference to the National Planning Policy Framework’. What does this mean?
The white paper says that the changed planning system can play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and maximising environmental benefits. Will the government be giving specific information or undertakings on climate change or on how planning is to contribute to meeting the 2050 net zero target, such as the prevention of development in car dependent locations?
Will the MHCLG encourage local authorities to use the Historic England and British Geological Survey strategic stone study and county stone atlases to help create locally distinctive development? Will it establish a national database or atlas on local distinctiveness covering other traditional materials and settlement patterns?
How will local authorities manage when so much of the funding in the proposed new system will come at the end of the process?
How will alternative transport options such as guided buses and light rail be funded?
How will local authorities acquire the high-level design skills that placemaking and design coding require, when the skills of planning departments have been declining significantly in recent years and look set to come under considerable further pressure?
What resources and influence will the proposed design quality unit have?
Will the government provide dedicated, ring-fenced funding for the post of Chief Officer for Design and Place-Making in each local authority?
How will the government’s hope of encouraging street trees be reconciled with the lack of control over the positioning of utilities in streets, which means that streets can be dug up at any time, destroying roots. How can combined utility ducts be created, with a properly designed under-street, where utilities are designed in?
How will local authorities be able to comply with GDPR requirements while at the same time making representations made by local people about a particular planning application, and on other planning matters, publicly accessible?