Changes to planning – reduction of red tape or danger to the environment?
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on many industries, including the construction sector, so the government introduced changes to the Town and Country Planning Act to make it easier to redevelop existing sites in order to reinvigorate the sector and increase the amount of affordable housing available.
While it’s cut red tape and made it easier for certain types of development to go ahead, there are fears it could cause irreparable damage to our environment.
What are the changes to the Town and Country Planning Act?
The Prime Minister’s Office referred to the changes introduced in September 2020 as “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War, making it easier to build better homes where people want to live. New regulations will give greater freedom for buildings and land in our town centres to change use without planning permission and create new homes from the regeneration of vacant and redundant buildings.”
In practice, this means:
- Fewer restrictions on changing the use of a property – for example, a shop could be turned into a restaurant or office without needing approval
- More commercial buildings can be turned into residential properties without needing a planning application
- Empty and redundant residential and commercial buildings can be demolished and rebuilt as homes without the need for normal planning applications
- Extensions of extra storeys to a property can go through a fast-track approval process.
The intention is to help the high street as empty commercial units can be turned to another use more quickly, and it’ll be easier to develop brownfield sites, reducing the pressure to build on greenfield sites.
What protections have been put in place?
While much of the red tape has been lifted, there are still environmental protections that must be adhered to. New developments will still need to conform to older legislation, such as the Conservation of Species and Habitats Regulations 2017. Developers cannot ignore past requirements which fall outside of the latest changes.
This also applies if special limitations were applied to a building when it was first given consent. For example, if planning permission stated that a building must not be used for any purpose other than that for which it was built, that restriction still applies.
New developments can’t automatically upgrade themselves either – a single-storey building that was given consent before lockdown can’t suddenly add another storey during the course of the build. The original building that was awarded planning consent must be built according to those plans; any additions must take place once the original building is completed. However, no timeframe has been given to state how long a building must exist before changes are allowed to be made.
What are the problems?
Those who oppose the changes say that it’s been rushed through with little consideration as to the negative impact it could have.
The campaign group Rights: Community Action (RCA) have gone to the High Court to challenge the legislation. Amongst other complaints, they say:
- Although the changes are hailed as the most radical development in planning law for a generation, there hasn’t been enough consultation, and not enough attention has been paid to the consultation which has taken place
- Applications for change of use are now largely irrelevant as the categories have become so broad
- There hasn’t been enough chance for debate – the changes were presented to Parliament the day before summer recess and brought into use the day before it reconvened
- EU law is being ignored, as environmental damage should be prevented rather than potentially addressed retrospectively. As large buildings can now be demolished without consent, environmental damage is inevitable
- Previous schemes to encourage new homes may not be appropriate to live in. A lack of scrutiny because of a lack of planning procedures has meant in the past that homes have been built without adequate space. As it is often homeless people who have no choice but to move into the properties offered to them, and this group are more likely than average to have mental health problems, the properties can actually damage their health further
- Lots of new homes are being created in out-of-town offices which are no longer being used – this means residents are distanced from public services, leading to them feeling socially excluded and increasing the likelihood of a need for more infrastructure building in the future.
Their appeal was rejected on 17th November, with the two judges refuting the points made. Particularly in relation to environmental protection, they said that the previously mentioned environmental protections are still in place, meaning that any sensitive areas are protected and activities such as large-scale demolition or construction wouldn’t be permitted.
What’s next for planning legislation?
RCA intend to appeal again, so it’s possible these changes may be reversed.
In the meantime, development work is taking place under the protection of legislation and conditions which were in place before the changes were introduced.
While there are concerns about the environmental impact of developments which haven’t had to go through planning procedures and assessment of environmental consequences, this should hopefully be mitigated by existing protections and the promise of new legislation, such as the Environment Bill, which will put a greater onus on developers and architects to make sure they protect and increase biodiversity, rather than cause lasting harm.
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