Will planning changes achieve their aims?

The new UK government is proposing planning changes to boost the building of onshore wind farms and new homes. A change in the law may ultimately be necessary.

| 8 min read

In the interests of speed and easy procedures, the new Labour government has begun by setting out changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, a 78-page document setting out broad policy. This needs to be incorporated and reflected in Local Plans, which govern the grants of planning permission in any given English local authority area. The UK government acts for England, leaving the rest of the UK free to make their own planning decisions through devolved administrations.

The government may well find that it needs to change planning law as well as policy. Current planning law works through Local Plans and a complex legislative background, allowing people and communities rights to object on a variety of grounds to proposals to build.

Large-scale projects such as nuclear power stations, major wind farms, new railway lines and roads all require lengthy consultation processes – with many studies of their environmental and other impacts. The previous government designated some of these projects as national infrastructure and used the National Infrastructure Commission to promote nationally important projects. The government could develop this body’s powers or replace it with something stronger.

The immediate changes include amendments to the national framework for onshore wind farms and for housing land.

The UK government had top-down targets for housebuilding by council until September 2023..

In response to local pressures from various parts of the country against taking more farmland for wind turbines, the last government added restrictions to the granting of planning permission for windfarms. It decided to only allow construction of windfarms where the local community argued there was a local community benefit, such as cheaper power, or where the council’s Local Plan had identified the opportunity within the plan.

The government is striking out these two categories, to leave people and councils free to grant windfarm applications not in a Local Plan and not delivering community benefits. This may bring forward new windfarm investments. There was never a complete ban on these projects.

Top-down housing targets for councils

The UK government had top-down targets for housebuilding by council until September 2023. This feature of National Planning Policy was then removed, but councils remained under a requirement to assess housing need in their area and to put enough new homes into the Local Plan, which must go through various stages of preparation to allow landowners and developers to argue for more planning permissions. The Local Plan is finalised by a Planning Inspector following an enquiry when all consultees can be heard and their evidence taken into account.

The previous government pledged to build one million homes between 2019 and 2024 – or 200,000 a year. It also promised to accelerate the rate to 300,000 by 2025. There were arguments about whether the policies could achieve that. In practice, in the period 2022-24, when a large acceleration was planned, the substantial monetary tightening undertaken by the Bank of England meant housing starts and completions fell short. There needs to be sufficient demand to justify a higher build rate.

Seeking to raise the UK new homes build rate requires policies in a range of areas. More planning permission could help a bit if that filled in gaps in the map where people want to buy but where there are insufficient new homes to purchase. This will include expensive city centre areas where more property will require rebuilding to a higher density.

What is needed to boost housing output?

There needs to be a ready supply of affordable mortgages for individual home purchase. This has been damaged by the large hikes in rates over the last two years. Some new homes are bought by landlords to rent out. This requires a decent supply of affordable finance and requires fair terms for landlords. Recent trends to offer more protection to tenants and to limit renting homes for holiday and short-term lets will reduce the effective demand for more new houses by landlords.

There needs to be a competitive housebuilding industry with capacity to expand. Some companies report difficulties in recruiting and retaining sufficient skilled labour in the range of trades needed to build a modern house. Some companies, keen to keep standards high, limit the pace at which they expand their workforce conscious that management needs to stay well informed about the needs and capabilities of their employees. Some companies would rather produce fewer homes to a high standard and charge for the qualities of the property.

There needs to be a ready supply of bricks, tiles, cement, roof trusses, doors and windows, flooring, plumbing supplies and the rest. Whilst it is possible to import, many of these items are heavy to move with high transport costs. Delivery to site at a pre-arranged time is crucial to efficient site management. The further the product travels the more chance of transport delays.

The UK is short of affordable places to rent. The UK government offers housing subsidies both to tenants and to social housing providers. It needs to offer sufficient targeted support to bring forward new homes to rent to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding population.

Annotated NPPF extract (on wind farms) (taken from government website)

162. In determining planning applications, Local Planning authorities should expect new development to:

a) comply with any development plan policies on local requirements for decentralised energy supply unless it can be demonstrated by the applicant, having regard to the type of development involved and its design, that this is not feasible or viable; and

b) take account of landform, layout, building orientation, massing and landscaping to minimise energy consumption.

163. When determining planning applications (57) for renewable and low carbon development, local planning authorities should:

a) not require applicants to demonstrate the overall need for renewable or low carbon energy, and recognise that even small-scale projects provide a valuable contribution to significant cutting greenhouse gas emissions;

b) approve the application if its impacts are (or can be made) acceptable (58). Once suitable areas for renewable and low carbon energy have been identified in plans, Local Planning authorities should expect subsequent applications for commercial scale projects outside these areas to demonstrate that the proposed location meets the criteria used in identifying suitable areas; and

c) in the case of applications for the repowering and life-extension of existing renewable sites, give significant weight to the benefits of utilising an established site, and approve the proposal if its impacts are or can be made acceptable.

Footnotes to paragraph 163 (no longer apply)

57 (no longer applies) Wind energy development involving one or more turbines can also be permitted through Local Development Orders, Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders. In the case of Local Development Orders, it should be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support.

58 (no longer applies) Except for applications for the repowering and life-extension of existing wind turbines, a planning application for wind energy development involving one or more turbines should not be considered acceptable unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the development plan or a supplementary planning document; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support.

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Will planning changes achieve their aims?

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