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It is universally recognised that planning is fundamental to the way our cities, towns and villages look, the way they work, the way they relate to each other and to the economic and social wellbeing of the country as a whole.
The Government's agenda is to develop a system of planning that delivers sustainable development, harnesses growth and facilitates a better future. The mantra is a better, simpler, faster, more accessible system that serves both business and the community.
When enacted, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 will establish a skeleton for a revamped planning system.
In contrast with the existing legislation, the bill will seek to create a more centralised system of planning that provides more certainty but at the same time encourages greater community involvement and consultation. The main proposals include: significant reduction in the volume of national planning guidance - these will be replaced by simplified documents entitled 'Planning Policy Statements' (PPSs); replacing regional planning guidance with statutory 'Regional Spatial Strategies'; abolishing county structure plans; replacing local plans and unitary development plans with documents, entitled 'Local Development Frameworks'; enhanced power for local planning authorities to decline to determine applications for a substantially similar application refused within the previous two years; restriction of twin tracking but limited dual jurisdiction for the local planning authority and the Secretary of State to determine applications; general reduction in the lifetime of an outline planning permission from five to three years; power to enable the Secretary of State and inspectors to issue corrections to planning decisions.
The bill also proposes some amendments to the existing compulsory purchase legislation. Most importantly, Section 226 of the Town and Country Planning Act is to be widened quite considerably. Acquiring authorities will only be required to consider whether the compulsory acquisition of land is necessary to facilitate development, redevelopment or improvement, or, in relation to land, in order to assist in either the economic, social or environmental wellbeing of their area.
On 10 June 2003, the House of Commons voted to carry over the bill into the next session of Parliament. The main reason for this was to allow time for further thought to be given to changes required as a consequence of the concessions made in Standing Committee. These include: making all proposals for the development of Crown land subject to the planning acts in the usual way; entitling those with lesser interests in property, such as short-term tenants and those who enjoy easements over the property to be compulsorily acquired, to be treated as statutory objectors; enabling all compulsory purchase orders to be confirmed in stages; authorising acquiring authorities to confirm unopposed orders, without modification; clarification of the valuation date for assessing compensation.
The Government is also aware of practical commercial concerns about the proposed reduction in the lifetime of outline planning permissions and has suggested that the three-year time limit should not start until any challenge to the validity of the planning permission has been disposed of.
The bill is only one piece of a very complex jigsaw in a fundamental change in the planning system.
In conjunction with the bill, the Government is in the process of reviewing all Planning Policy Guidance notes and replacing them with PPSs, and has recently published a consultation paper on the use of planning obligations.
Through the Law Commission, the Government is also undertaking a wholesale review of the law of compulsory purchase and practice. The changes should ultimately result in a more accessible and transparent system of planning. The new system will, however, result in more work for local planning authorities, which will have prime responsibility for implementing the changes. The workload on the Planning Inspectorate will also increase.
The bill represents a missed opportunity for the Government to undertake a single, comprehensive review of the planning system. It is, in effect, the start of the process. The bill will serve as a further layer of bureaucracy in the decision-making process and will not deliver the Government's objectives of a quicker, fairer, better system that will be of benefit both to business and the community.
The bill is scheduled to be considered by the House of Lords early in the New Year with a view to receiving royal assent by April with commencement in June 2004.
Trevor Goode is a planning and environmental law partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner