In December 2014 the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a series of future planning reforms to be introduced over the next six months. This article considers:
- changes to development consent orders for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs);
- changes to neighbourhood planning reform;
- the Review of Local and Technical Housing Standards; and
- changes to the thresholds for when an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) screening is required for a development project.
Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects
There will be a number of changes to development consent orders (DCO) for NSIPs, with a view to speeding up the process.
These include an increase in the number of consents that can be included within the scope of a DCO and the introduction of more non-planning consents into the DCO regime. These changes are due to come into force on 6 April 2015, subject to the enactment of the Infrastructure Bill.
Neighbourhood planning reform
A raft of measures will be introduced which aim to speed up and simplify the neighbourhood planning process. They are due to be implemented shortly.
Review of Local and Technical Housing Standards
The Government hopes to support and encourage housing developers by reducing costs and administration, whilst maintaining quality, sustainability, safety and accessibility. It is estimated that the scheme will save UK councils and developers £96m per year once it is fully implemented. Its implementation is dependent upon the Deregulation Bill.
Amendment of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessments) Regulations 2011 (the Regulations)
Higher thresholds for screening for EIAs were announced in the Government’s statement in line with a consultation held last year. Changes to the size thresholds for some of the projects listed in Schedule 2 of the Regulations will reduce the number of developments that require an EIA screening.
The measures will affect both industrial estate development and urban development projects, with the threshold requiring an EIA screening being raised from 0.5 hectares to five hectares for residential sites. This includes where there is up to one hectare of non-residential development. However, residential developments of 150 units or more will still require screening, regardless of their footprint. Other urban development will be increased from 0.5 hectares to one hectare and industrial estate development from 0.5 hectare to five hectares.
Development projects in sensitive areas will continue to be screened on a case-by-case basis.
The Government's report announced that the new thresholds would be introduced in January 2015 – however, the draft legislation and the response to the consultation are yet to be published.
The focus of these reforms is largely on reducing the regulatory burden on businesses by lowering costs and streamlining administrative requirements. The Government have estimated that these changes will save developers around £100m per year.
With the relatively recent ability to obtain DCOs for commercial developments, in our view there is a glaring gap with a national need and justification for the NSIP regime to also give developers the option of obtaining DCOs for large residential and retail developments. We suspect the Government may revisit the issue at some point and there is already industry discussion on the topic.
The intent of the EIA threshold changes is to streamline the process to catch fewer projects by the screening requirements. However, the 150 residential unit threshold was introduced by the Government in response to objections that residential tower blocks of that size could potentially have significant effects. We understand the threshold is to apply country-wide and therefore has the undesirable outcome that, contrary to the Government’s original objectives, there is a risk that more residential developments may be caught by the EIA screening requirements than before. The general trend remains that delivering residential development is a challenge.