Following the Queen’s Speech on 10 May, the UK Government introduced a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. This wide-ranging Bill seeks to change the way powers can be devolved to Local Authorities and introduces reforms to the planning system in England. The latter of which were initially proposed to be in a separate Planning Bill that has now been scrapped, along with proposals for a zonal approach to planning.
Environmental Outcomes Report
One of the key reforms in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (hereafter referred to as ‘the Bill’) is the replacement of the Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment regime with a new system of environmental assessment; Environmental Outcomes Reports (EORs). This section of the Bill allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to set “specified environmental outcomes” against which consents and plans will be assessed, and repeal/amend existing environmental assessment legislation.
In setting outcomes, the Secretary of State (SoS) must have regard to the 25 Year Environment Plan (and subsequent Environmental Improvement Plans), including the legally binding long-term environment targets and interim targets that are set under it. The Government will also prepare guidance on how plans and consents demonstrate they are supporting the delivery of environmental outcomes.
As well as assessing against outcomes, an EOR must assess the impact of any proposed mitigation or compensation and consider reasonable alternatives to the consent or plan
The EOR section of the Bill includes a non-regression clause which states “the Secretary of State must be satisfied that any regulations do not reduce the overall level of environmental protection provided by existing environmental law at the time the Act is passed.” It also ensures regulations cannot contain provisions that are inconsistent with the implementation of the UK’s international obligations relating to the assessment of the environmental impact of relevant plans and relevant consents, and sets a commitment to ensuring adequate public engagement in the process of preparing an EOR.
In the Government’s response to the Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities Select Committee’s inquiry on the future of the planning system in England, they said: “The Government agrees that the impact of development on the natural environment needs to be factored into decision-making at both a strategic and project level… The Government is clear that these reforms will not result in a weakening of environmental safeguards and will provide the Government with the tools it needs to deliver more for the environment.”
The SoS will be able to determine which plans and consents require an Environmental Outcomes Report, but in deciding this, the SoS will have to abide by the non-regression clause above. Category 1 consents will always require an EOR whereas a category 2 consent will only be required to produce an EOR where it meets criteria set through regulations. What types of projects and plans will sit in each of these will be set through subsequent regulations.
There will be further public consultation on the regulations that will set the environmental outcomes and requirements for monitoring and reporting. We will of course be engaging with these consultations and the progress of the Bill.
Another reform detailed in the Bill is the replacement of the current system of developer contributions with a new Infrastructure Levy charge to deliver the infrastructure that new developments require.
The new levy will be charged on the value of property when it is sold by the developer and applied above a minimum threshold, with levy rates and thresholds being set locally by planning authorities. The rates must be set as a percentage of gross development value. The Bill will require local authorities to prepare infrastructure delivery strategies that will set out how the money is spent.
Section 106 agreements will continue to be used in a more targeted way, such as when requiring developers to deliver integral operational infrastructure at a site, such as flood risk mitigation, and to support delivery of the largest projects via in-kind and negotiated contributions. In this case, payments must be no lower than would be paid through the infrastructure levy.
Local Development Plans
In the Bill, Local Plans have been given more weight in planning decisions, so there must be much stronger reasons to deviate from it. The same weight will also be given to other parts of a plan, such as mineral and waste plans, community-led neighbourhood plans, and “spatial development strategies produced to address important planning issues at a more strategic scale.” At this stage it is not clear what this means for Local Nature Recovery Strategies introduced through the Environment Act.
Policies on issues that apply in most areas will be set out nationally in a suite of National Development Management Policies, which will have the same weight as plans. One argument for introducing this is to cut down the time it takes to develop plans, as the 30-month requirement remains. The Government says this will be made more reasonable by a number of other reforms including removing the duty to cooperate, reducing the evidence burden and changing the soundness tests at examination. The Bill abolishes the duty to cooperate but it will be replaced with an ‘alignment policy’ in a revised National Planning Framework.
Statutory consultees will be able to comment on individual sites where they have concerns, as they do in the current system.
Making use of brownfield sites
To direct development towards regeneration of brownfield sites, the Bill streamlines Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) and grants the power to local authorities to use CPO for regeneration purposes to ”empower local decision making and improve transparency regarding local authorities’ power to acquire brownfield land compulsorily for regeneration in their area.”
The Bill makes provision for a new type of locally-led Urban Development Corporation that will be accountable to local authorities rather than the Secretary of State. Urban Development Corporations will have the objective of regenerating its area.
The Government has no plans for a national review of the Green Belt and retains the current system.
The Bill sets out to allow “every part of England that wants one to have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution.” It makes it easier to devolve powers to more of England through a new type of combined authority – combined county authorities. These will be made up of upper tier local authorities (like county councils).
Community land auctions
Another new initiative introduced is community land auctions, for which legislation will be brought forward to enable piloting of the approach. Landowners will be able to submit their land into an allocation process as part of an emerging local plan, offering the local planning authority an option on the land at a price set by the landowner. The local authority will allocate land based on both planning considerations and the option price. The difference between the option price offered by landowners, and the price offered to develop allocated land, will be retained by local authorities for the benefit of local communities.
Finally, the Bill strengthens enforcement powers for Local Authorities when dealing with those who fail to abide by the EOR rules. It also extends more general enforcement powers, such as extending the time period in which local planning authorities can take enforcement action against unauthorised developments in England from four years to ten years, and the length of temporary stop notices to 56 days.