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Can investment zones really streamline the planning process?

Paul Walton, director of PWA Planning, explains the government’s proposed enterprise zones and asks whether they can really deliver a quicker planning process.

Investment zones – unveiled in the mini budget as part of the government’s Growth Plan 2022 – is a new initiative promising to help bring forward commercial and residential development and regeneration.

Delivered by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, investment zones will be located across the country, with combined authorities and upper tier authorities in England able to bid to become part of the scheme.

Investment zones aim to ‘turbocharge’ development by not only giving businesses in that area a boost through lower taxes, but also offering a more streamlined planning process by loosening planning rules for new developments.

It is hoped that this combination will spur a surge in housebuilding across the country.

Deregulated planning rules

On the face of it, the investment zones appear to share many similarities with the current enterprise zones. Although much of the incentive will be tax driven – with cutting regulations being the main premise – planning interference, or lack of, is another prevalent feature.

At this stage it isn’t clear what the light touch planning regime might amount to, or how it will be implemented.

A framework for the planning regime in investment zones is expected to be released imminently, but initial details on the liberalised planning offer shows the government’s intention is to ensure it does everything possible to streamline and accelerate the delivery of high-quality development for jobs and homes.

The key component will be a new faster, streamlined consent to grant planning permission, which will seek to:

  • Remove burdensome EU requirements which create paperwork and stall development but do not necessarily protect the environment
  • Focus developer contributions on essential infrastructure requirements
  • Reduce lengthy consultation with statutory bodies
  • Relax key national and local policy requirements

Locally led

The light touch planning regime will be operated by a development corporation or other body established by the chosen local authority or group of authorities – so it is not intended to operate nationwide.

Of course, some key national policies will not be relaxed, for example those surrounding the green belt, heritage, flood risk and highways to name a few. In fact, almost all of the technical matters which currently cause significant delay – and often stalemate – in progressing planning applications at this time.

It will be interesting to see how, with these caveats, the planning system can be made not to stand in the way of investment.

Delays resulting from under resourced statutory consultees will need to be the main focus of attention, as delays at present are often counted in months if not years.

Grappling with a system which needs to ensure public and statutory consultation, yet which can bring forward development in a timely manner has been the silver bullet which has eluded national and local government since the inception of the modern planning system in 1947.

It remains to be seen whether this new regime at No.10 can square this particular circle.

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