The Queen’s Speech – Levelling Up and Planning Reform, what can be legislated for?

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The Queen’s Speech – Levelling Up and Planning Reform, what can be legislated for?

Edward Clarke 10 May 2022
Today’s Queen Speech saw the Government set out its legislative agenda for the upcoming parliamentary year – the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill took centre stage.
The purpose of the proposed Bill is to “drive local growth, empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas, and ensuring everyone can share in the United Kingdom’s success”.
In this ‘on the day’ analysis we briefly consider how it might meet its aims in two policy areas: (i) levelling up and (ii) planning reform.

Levelling Up

The Government have made levelling up a central platform of this parliament, while some observers have been quick to write off the agenda, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State have set themselves the ambitious timeline of 2030 to see results. Our analysis showed the geography of both the socio economic challenges that need to be addressed and the opportunities for investments to make a difference. Today’s announcement legislated for more of these areas to benefit from devolution and establish the institutions to make better decisions in two ways:
Firstly, ‘empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas’, adding the legislative backing to the funding and policy proposals previously announced. The next steps for many local areas will be to get their ‘devolution deals’ (either county or combined authorities) over the line and established so they can deliver on the desired outcomes.
Secondly, placing a duty on the Government to set Levelling Up missions and produce an annual report updating the country on delivery of these missions. The next steps here will be to set and monitor targets that ensure that ‘levelling up’ is rooted in the priorities of all Whitehall departments.
In truth, the funding for ‘levelling up’ has been known for some time now, with bids for the second round of funding being prepared now. The aims and policy detail (including 12 national missions) has also been set out in the Levelling Up White Paper . Today’s Queen’s Speech legislated for the government to take the Bill through the house, and allowed for further devolution through the already trailed “county deals”.

Planning reform

The second part of this bill addresses the aim to “improve the planning system”. The Bill appears to support planning reform in a much changed form to that suggested in either the 2017 or 2020 Housing and Planning White Papers. Notably, one element that does survive these previous iterations appears to be the change to the infrastructure levy. Lichfields will comment more on this when further detail is available - however realising betterment values and land value capture has been an aim for Governments across most of the 60 years Lichfields has operated; therefore the challenge is getting the details right.
The Secretary of State’s comments in the lead up to the Queen’s Speech, that “abstract housing targets should not be the sole measure of success[1]”  could be seen as a change in emphasis away from the long-standing aim of delivering “300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020’s” towards “making sure developments are beautiful, green and accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing.” However, there is an acknowledgement that “the current system cannot meet the national demand for housing”.
The Bill at this stage does not go into detail, however, there is a stated aim for “Simplifying and standardising the process for local plans”. The focus here must be on improving both the quality and the coverage of development plans. Recent Lichfields research found that only 42% of LPAs had a fully up-to-date local plan[2] with 11 authorities stalling, delaying or withdrawing local plans in recent months. Our previous analysis of the reasons for this point mainly to uncertainty over housing need requirements, political challenges of meeting targets in constrained areas and the apparent change in ‘mood music’ from central Government away from a pressure to deliver housing numbers[3] and towards developments with local support.
To meet its aims to improve plan making, and to deliver homes and infrastructure within the remaining parliamentary period, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will need to be supported by non-legislative measures that address three issues that loom over plan making as it stands:
Uncertainty. Proposed tweaks to the NPPF and a possible lower housing need target (in the South of England) that appear to be trailed need to be clarified to provide local authorities with the certainty of what their local plans will be assessed against. As it stands, the Government’s December 2023 deadline appears to be the lesser risk facing many local authorities compared with the political benefits of delivering a potentially lower number of homes under a mooted new standard method.
Nitrate Neutrality. Additionally, 74 local planning authorities are affected by the so called “nitrate neutrality” effects, requiring authorities to stall housing development until they can guarantee schemes are ‘nutrient neutral’. These areas are in need of a comprehensive package of solutions to the nitrate neutrality problem in each catchment area – an estimated 100,000 homes are estimated to currently be held up in these areas[4].
Resourcing. Public sector planning is understaffed and under resourced, tasked with dealing with an increasingly wide range complex specialities, and balancing priorities from achieving ‘carbon net zero’ to health and active travel priorities, as well as viability and affordable housing contributions - the total expenditure on planning policy has fallen by 22% in England between 2010 and 2020[5]. This under resourcing delays decisions, leads to poorer plan making and poorer outcomes for communities.
In conclusion, for the Government to succeed in its aims of delivering the aims of the levelling up and planning reform bill, many of the most important actions do not require legislative changes. Potentially the ‘biggest wins’ against these aims are in unlocking developments that are held back by uncertainty, by nitrate neutrality issues or by under resourced local authorities. However, the Bill will be successful if it can deliver on its aims to enable local areas to plan more effectively together and not add to complexity or uncertainty unnecessarily. In this sense, supporting combined authorities and county deals to address strategic plan making effectively, including making the joined-up decisions that the bill sets out could lead to improved outcomes both to levelling up and planning reform.

[1] Levelling up bill will include 'street votes' on local design codes, says Gove

[2] Ten years of the NPPF: What do we have to show for a decade of plan making?
As of the 27th March 2022. We interpret ‘up-to-date’ in this context as Local Plans that were adopted or reviewed within the past five years in the context that local plans have to be reviewed, and if necessary, updated every five years to remain up to date. This includes Castle Point and Eastleigh who although they did not have an adopted local plan at this date, did have a local plan which had been found sound. This also includes authorities who undertook a Local Plan Review and found the plan did not require updating including Reigate and Banstead and Woking.

[3] Counting the cost of delay: The economic impact of Local Plan delay to housing delivery

[4] 100,000 homes on hold due to 'nitrate neutrality' advice, housebuilders claim

[5] Provide funding certainty for planning departments, RTPI tells government