Re-examining the Growth Plan and Investment Zones

Given the letter from the Leader of Oxfordshire County Council declining the opportunity to bid for an Investment Zone, it was aptly timed that I spent an afternoon this week unpicking The Growth Plan with senior figures from across local government.

On investment zones, Councillor Liz Leffman, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said:

"We have thanked the government for inviting Oxfordshire to bid for investment zone status. We have decided not to progress this opportunity... We consider that the de-regularisation of planning controls and reductions in environmental protection, which appear to be a condition of any investment zone, are incompatible with our net zero carbon aspirations and our commitment to protect and enhance biodiversity and environmental quality, as stated in our vision. Investment zones are better suited to large urban areas with substantial brown-field sites or former industrial areas, which are seeking much needed investment. We are very supportive of the intention to distribute economic advantage across the country and we will be happy to play whatever part we can in advancing this. We reiterate our call on government to provide support for infrastructure to support housebuilding. Any support government is able to provide to help us achieve balanced communities, with good infrastructure and decent environmental standards, would be welcome.”

While the discussion was under Chatham House rules, I thought I would share the questions I posed. This follows yesterday's debate on the Levelling Up Bill which contains some interesting amendments.

On planning liberalisation

Paragraph's 3.6, 3.16 and 4.12 talk of a liberalised planning system:

3.6 streamline the public sector, and liberate the private sector, by making Britain the place for:  ... infrastructure: accelerating the construction of vital infrastructure projects by liberalising the planning system and streamlining consultation and approval requirements ... home ownership: getting the housing market moving

3.16 areas with Investment Zones will benefit from tax incentives, planning liberalisation, and wider support for the local economy. The specific interventions in Investment Zones will include: Accelerated development – there will be designated development sites to deliver growth and housing. Where planning applications are already in flight, they will be streamlined and we will work with sites to understand what specific measures are needed to unlock growth, including disapplying legacy EU red tape where appropriate. Development sites may be co-located with, or separate to, tax sites, depending on what makes most sense for the local economy.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will shortly set out more detail on the planning offer. This will include detail on the level of deregulation and the streamlined mechanism for securing planning permission.

4.23 Planning reform to accelerate infrastructure delivery – The Growth Plan announces new legislation (the Planning and Infrastructure Bill) to accelerate priority major infrastructure projects across England, by: minimising the burden of environmental assessments; making consultation requirements more proportionate; reforming habitats and species regulation; and increasing flexibility to make changes to a Development Consent Order once it has been submitted.

I asked:

  • Where do we expect to get to with “planning liberalisation”?
  • Will it free up planning officer time and will the market decide or will this kind of free for all have damaging consequences all round?
  • Do you agree with Oxfordshire that this level of liberalisation is better suited to brownfield sites or are the risks just as high there?
  • Do you think that Council's already have the tools (LDO's, flexibility over business rates, etc) to create investment zones without further legislation and actually is it that you need the time and resources to go about doing that?
  • To the extent that the more general reference to new legislation goes wider than the potential for investment zones what do we make of the potential to:
    • minimising the burden of environmental assessments;
    • making consultation requirements more proportionate;
    • reforming habitats and species regulation; and
    • increasing flexibility to make changes to a Development Consent Order once it has been submitted.

Building more homes

3.31 To make buying a home a reality, the government must accelerate housing delivery. Planning permission was granted for more than 310,000 homes last year, up 10% on the year before, but further reform is needed. Later this autumn, the government will set out its vision to unlock homeownership for a new generation by building more homes in the places people want to live and work and by getting our housing market moving. This will boost growth across the UK helping more people afford to live near good jobs.

I asked:

  • How is the target to grant more permissions seen against the potential removal of the overall 300,000 target nationally being removed?
  • Since making this statement Capital Economics has revised its forecast and said that UK housing starts were now likely to fall from a predicted 178,000 homes this year, to just 110,000 next year, on the back of potential 13.6% fall in “real” house prices across 2023. To such an extent that homes become increasingly unaffordable due to a lack of supply, even if built and permitted, how can the planning system further assist in a difficult market?

Infrastructure - energy

3.34 The UK’s planning system is too slow and too fragmented. For example, an offshore wind farm can take four years to get through the planning process and no new substantive onshore wind farm has received planning consent since 2015.12 On some metrics, the system has also been deteriorating in recent years: the timespan for granting Development Consent Orders (DCOs) increased by 65% between 2012 and 2021.  3.37 The Growth Plan also announces further sector specific changes to accelerate delivery of infrastructure, including: • prioritising the delivery of National Policy Statements for energy, water resources and national networks, and of a cross-government action plan for reform of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure planning system

This is one of my favourites. Is it really the “slow” system which has stopped onshore wind since 2015. From the National Planning Policy Framework – Do local people have the final say on wind farm applications?

The written ministerial statement made on 18 June 2015 is quite clear that when considering applications for wind energy development, local planning authorities should (subject to the transitional arrangement) only grant planning permission i

the development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan; and

following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing.

Whether the proposal has the backing of the affected local community is a planning judgement for the local planning authority.

I asked:

  • Could this indicate that the government is set to revoke the 2015 WMS with a view to encouraging more on-shore wind?
  • As for NPS's - we have them - they haven't been updated since 2011 but were consulted upon late last year. Is there a sign that the project will be revisited?

Judicial review

3.37 ... reforms to accelerate roads delivery, including by consenting more through the Highways Act 1980 and by considering options for changing the Judicial Review system to avoid claims which cause unnecessary delays to delivery

I asked:

  • Is this system causing unnecessary delay to delivery or is it well set up to weed out poor claims quite early on?

Concluding remarks

Changing planning policy can act as a lever for development. However, it’s critical that we avoid becoming tunnel-visioned in the pursuit of growth; ensuring that deregulation does not impact the environment and balances the delivery of much-needed market rate and affordable housing with the related required infrastructure.

If the government is to accelerate wider planning reform, it must also empower the public sector by properly resourcing local planning authorities. The planning system is not broken. It is, however, severely under-funded and under-resourced - liberalising it and deregulating it is not going to fix that.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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