In the second of our short series of blogs about the Infrastructure Bill, our Victoria looks at some of the main elements that concern her:
As the Trust’s Planning Advisor, I skipped straight to Part 3 the ‘Planning and Land’ chapter of the new Infrastructure Bill. The Bill proposes a number of changes to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure regime, but these applications are very few and far between (think major ports, power stations and airports). It is the changes to the mainstream planning system that most interest us, as the sheer number of applications it will influence are massive – for example between January and March 2014, district level planning authorities in England decided 96,000 planning applications!
So what is the proposed change?
Well, it relates to the discharging of conditions. When planning permission is granted it is generally subject to a number of conditions. Often these are negatively worded (known as Grampian Conditions) – for example, a condition could be that development cannot commence prior to the submission and approval of a satisfactory planting and maintenance scheme. The applicant must submit the required details along with a fee to the Local Planning Authority (LPA); the LPA then has 12 weeks to sign off – or discharge – the conditions. However in reality this can take significantly longer. As a former LPA Planning Officer I know from experience that with tight statutory timescales on determining applications the discharge of conditions can often end up at the bottom of a Planning Officer’s To-Do pile.
The Infrastructure Bill introduces a mechanism for certain types of planning conditions to be deemed to be ‘discharged’ if the LPA has not notified the applicant of their decision about the condition within a set time period. The Bill sets out that there will be exceptions to this rule and that secondary legislation will be prepared to support this.
We are anxious to ensure that any proposed changes to speed up the system are not at the expense of the natural environment. We are particularly concerned that measures will be put in place that deliberately curb the use of negatively-worded conditions, such as those requiring the submission of landscaping and planting schemes prior to commencement. While conditions like these can be viewed as time consuming and can appear to be an ‘add on’ at the end of the process, they are in fact critical in ensuring sites are developed sensitively. We are also keen to ensure that the proposed changes do not deter Planning Officers from adding important conditions.
The natural environment must be considered at the heart of all planning applications and we shall be pushing for conditions relating the natural environment to be exempt from any deemed discharge measures. The current regime puts the onus on the LPA acting to expedite applications. We believe that the emphasis should instead be on developers providing as much information as possible early on up front to ensure that due and timely consideration can be given to any proposal.
Transfer of land to the Homes and Communities Agency
In addition, a more widely publicised element of the Bill is that it includes a provision for amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. This would allow land to be transferred directly from arms length bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). The HCA would then be charged with releasing land for development in an attempt to free up more land for housing.
The Woodland Trust is very concerned about the potential implications of this element of the Bill. We are pushing hard for an amendment that recognises that not all land is appropriate for development. In particular it will be important to see exemptions for designated sites and irreplaceable habitats including ancient woodland. We are also calling for an exemption for the Public Forest Estate as without a Forestry Bill the nation’s forests remain vulnerable.
There will be more about other aspects of the Infrastructure Bill on our blog.
Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Adviser