Steven Pearson takes a closer look at the content of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill
In September 2021, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities began work, signalling its intent to reduce UK inequality. Shortly after, it put the brakes on an ambitious planning system reform set out in a white paper only a year previously.
Rumours spread that the Planning Bill setting out widespread systemic changes would not see the light of day, confirmed by the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022. Instead, planning reform would be folded into a new Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, designed to tackle geographical disparities across the UK and alter the planning system in aid of this endeavour.
The Bill’s proposed changes to the planning system don’t quite resemble those put forward in 2020, but some interesting proposals to have emerged.
Proposed planning reform includes provisions that empower local leaders to regenerate areas and improve the local process to produce plans that guide local development, while also increasing the importance of such plans in the decision-making process. Further powers are given to hold a ‘rental auction’ to find tenancies for high street premises that have been vacant for over a year. The proposals also give more planning rights to communities, including via ‘street votes’ that would allow residents to propose and vote on development on a street.
All of this will be set against a backdrop of easier-to-make local plans with an increased focus on environment, locally agreed design codes on favoured styles, layouts, materials and use of green space, and an infrastructure levy that will see developers contribute funds to improve, maintain and develop an area’s infrastructure. The levy will be mandatory across England, unlike its predecessor, the Community Infrastructure Levy, which will only remain in Wales and Greater London.
EIA to be replaced?
While the Bill’s primary focus may be planning reforms and levelling up, Part 5 of the Bill is noteworthy. It proposes an Environmental Outcomes system to replace the system of strategic environmental assessments (SEA) and environmental impact assessments (EIA), which were derived from the EU’s 2001 and 1985 Directives.
The proposed system aims to introduce a simpler process against which plans can be assessed to see a project’s impact on the environment. Regulations will set out specific environmental outcomes as the basis of assessment. Environmental Outcomes Reports will have to be made in relation to certain proposed consents and plans, ensuring the new system is an outcome-based approach in which anticipated environmental effects are measured against nationally-set, tangible environmental outcomes.
An Environmental Outcomes Report should assess the extent to which a plan would impact the delivery of outcomes, and how to monitor its impact on delivery of an outcome. It should also specify steps required to increase the extent to which an outcome is delivered, and steps needed to avoid, mitigate, remedy or compensate for cases when there will be a failure to meet an outcome.
The government states: “This approach will ensure there is a clear focus on protecting our environment, pursuing positive environmental improvements and providing clear join-up between strategic and project scale assessments.” The Bill also requires the Levelling Up Secretary to ensure the new system does not reduce environmental protection.
Most of the Bill’s finer detail will be published in future regulations, so it is hard to know exactly what the new system will entail. This means waiting for more information through a consultation, statement or draft regulations.
The Environmental Outcomes system will be subject to consultation, giving professionals the chance to scrutinise it. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons on 11 May 2022, with a second reading on 8 June 2022. The Committee Stage is now ongoing, during which detailed analysis will take place and appropriate amendments will be made. This will continue until late September.
While there is a long way to go until the Bill receives Royal Assent, and potentially several amendments made as it makes its way through the Houses of Parliament, the government intends to implement the Bill’s planning changes by 2024.
Steven Pearson, PIEMA is a legal author and consultant at Cedrec Information Systems.