PLANNING REFORM IN PERIL: WHAT NOW FOR THE LEVELLING-UP & REGENERATION BILL?
Stefanos Koryzis, LCA Account Director, Insight, explains where we currently stand on this critical piece of legislation, at the end of a tumultuous two weeks for planning reform.
The Levelling-Up & Regeneration Bull (LURB) first emerged in May 2022 but with three different Secretaries of State in charge since then (and one of them twice) it has been a rocky road for this flagship piece of legislation. Here we do our best to explain how we got here and where things stand.
The Bill’s planning elements partly originate from former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s abortive Planning for the Future White Paper and a linked Planning Bill, which were effectively killed off by Tory backbenchers in 2020-2021. The LURB is also very much influenced by his successor (and current Secretary of State) Michael Gove’s 2022 Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper. Indeed it was during Gove’s first tenure as Levelling Up Secretary that the Bill was finalised and submitted to parliament.
Initially perceived as a “watered down” version of Jenrick’s plans, it quickly emerged that Gove’s LURB actually comprised a number of fairly radical policies (more here). These include a new Infrastructure Levy to largely replace Section 106 and CIL; a greater emphasis on design standards; supposedly “simpler” Local Plans; and a new layer of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs). Those and other key elements remain in the Bill to this day.
Things get trickier still
The LURB had started to wend its way through Parliament when Boris Johnson’s government started to falter and ultimately failed amidst a mass resignation of ministers this summer. A battered Johnson got in a punch or two himself, sacking Gove in July 2022. Things trundled on during Johnson’s “caretaker” administration, with Greg Clark as Levelling Up Secretary, as well as during the first part of Liz Truss’s short-lived government. The Commons Library has published a briefing usefully explaining the process up until late September, at which time the LURB cleared Committee Stage.
Meanwhile, over the course of the first of 2022’s Conservative party leadership contests and Truss’s first few weeks in power, it became clear that she and her Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke had big ideas about “deregulating” planning. However, they were ousted before they could make any substantive changes to the LURB, whilst their proposals for a separate, additional Planning & Infrastructure Bill similarly went nowhere.
Following the collapse of the Truss regime and the instalment of Rishi Sunak’s “new” Government, Michael Gove was re-appointed as Levelling Up Secretary. The current government has signalled clearly that the majority of Truss’ ideas for planning are not being taken forward. The LURB’s progress paused while the Conservative Party and the new(ish) Cabinet settled down, but the Bill’s Report Stage debates were then quietly scheduled for this week and the next (23 and 28 November).
Which brings us to the present
There have been three major developments since last week:
First, Gove seems to have used the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement as a smokescreen when he submitted a fairly long list of amendments to the Bill, in at least two instalments. Unpicking these is a difficult task, but veteran planning lawyer Simon Ricketts has given it a first go and the Local Government Association’s policy wonks are giving it a fighting try too. Gove’s changes seem to remove little (if anything) from the Bill, but they do flesh out several clauses and notably add a fair amount of all-new policy. The item that has caught the trade media’s attention is a clause giving planning authorities the power to withhold consent from developers who have not built out previous permissions – i.e. a tool to tackle so-called “land-banking”. However Gove’s amendments actually include much more, including what seems to be a workaround to the nutrient neutrality rules that are holding up development in parts of England.
Second, at least two factions of “rebel” Tory MPs chose roughly the same moment to submit multiple amendments of their own. One group of around 50 is led by Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers. Their proposals notably include provisions that would effectively scrap housing targets for planning authorities, which critics have labelled a “NIMBY” measure that can only reduce housebuilding, something Villiers and Co. flatly deny. The other group appears to be spearheaded by former Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke, who, with the support of 20-odd MPs, including Truss and Johnson, has tabled proposals that would reverse a long-standing block on new wind farms.
Third, it seems that the Government has been rattled by the rebels’ ability to drum up support in parliament and secure ample media coverage. The first of two Report Stage sessions took place on Wednesday as planned and some amendments were voted on (see Hansard for the details). However, it is widely understood that the crucial – which is to say second and last – Report Stage session on 28 November has been delayed, though no formal announcement has yet to be made on when it will be held instead, at least as of writing.
Naturally, all this Tory infighting is a boon to Labour. The Leader of the Opposition has ridiculed the PM for failing to deliver planning reform and “killing off the dream of home ownership” whilst his Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy has actually stated that “Labour will step up to keep this legislation moving.”
The road ahead is unclear. As noted above, no official statement has been made on when the second Report Stage debate and vote might take place. The Government has bought itself some time to figure out how to tackle the backbench rebellion and ministers are keeping their cards close to their chests – with officials cited by the press evidently reluctant to divulge any details.
Even assuming the Government finds a way to handle the rebels, the LURB still has a way to go. Having cleared Report Stage, it will have to pass a Third Reading and then get through the Lords before securing Royal Assent. The process could take months, especially considering upcoming recess periods.
LCA’s Insight team will continue to monitor the situation closely, keeping our clients abreast of this critical piece of legislation. If you found this blog useful, you can read more of our research and commentary on this and relevant issues by signing up to our free weekly news digest, LDN – London in Short.