The Nine Elms redevelopment on the south bank of the Thames in London
The Nine Elms redevelopment on the south bank of the Thames in London © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Ministers are preparing for a major overhaul of the planning system in England to speed up approvals for new developments as part of the government’s attempts to kick-start the economy hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. 

Central to the proposals are the introduction of a zonal planning system and the creation of special development zones, in which private developers will play an expanded role. 

Robert Jenrick, communities secretary, said the government wanted to “rethink planning from first principles” with a shake-up designed to accelerate the process. 

“The time has come to speed up and simplify this country’s overly bureaucratic planning process,” he said on Wednesday. “This government is thinking boldly and creatively about the planning system to make it fit for the future.”

Ministers hope that the reforms can be agreed in time for a wider economic announcement in July by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, which will also include extra infrastructure spending. 

Mr Sunak, Mr Jenrick and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, are leading the discussion from the government’s side, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

Those familiar with the discussions say initial plans are being described by ministers as a “New Deal” for planning. “They are moving fast, the question is whether they are willing to take the radical steps that are required,” said one.

One proposal is to change England’s design codes so that “attractive” buildings can be sped through the planning process. The model for that could be the “as-of-rights” system used in the US whereby a proposed development that complies with all applicable zoning codes does not require any special consideration from the authorities. 

Ministers are also considering the creation of new development zones — in which the government invests in public infrastructure to stimulate private development. These would be along the lines of the London Docklands Development Corporation, which was set up in the early 1980s and led to the building of Canary Wharf and the wider regeneration of the Docklands area in the east of the capital.

The government is also likely to go further in allowing change of use for existing properties, for example turning unused shops into homes or offices.

Downing Street has set up an advisory panel that includes Bridget Rosewell, the national infrastructure commissioner who recently headed a review into accelerating planning appeal inquiries, property developer Sir Stuart Lipton and barrister Christopher Katkowski.

The other members are Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of Create Streets, co-chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and Miles Gibson, head of UK research at advisory group CBRE. 

In March, Mr Jenrick announced a consultation called “Planning For The Future”, which recommended expanding the system of “permitted development rights”, allowing empty buildings to be knocked down and replaced with housing without the need for a planning application.

That document proposed that councils simplified the process of granting planning permission through zoning tools such as “local development orders”.

As part of the overhaul being discussed, “the government will be looking for green spaces and well-designed buildings in return for relaxing planning restrictions. The private sector will put in finance and expertise to bring about development quickly,” said Alistair Watson, UK head of planning and environment at law firm Taylor Wessing, adding the reforms amounted to a “stratospheric planning change”.

But the proposals are likely to cause disquiet among councils and planners if they reduce the scrutiny of new developments. 

David Renard, the Local Government Association’s planning spokesman, said it was essential that councils continued to play a big role in taking planning decisions. 

“The planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding,” he insisted. “Nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils, while as our recent analysis shows, more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade have not yet been built.” 

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