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VIEWS – Planning Reforms will increase importance of communications

19th May 2021

Last Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech has sparked controversy in many areas. Opposition parties are portraying the potential introduction of voter identification as a threat to democracy. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is facing similar hostility, with many publicly protesting a Bill that they see as taking away their rights to do just that.

However, perhaps the most radical legislation proposal was the reform of planning. Ministers are suggesting that the changes could cause the largest shift in the planning system in more than 70 years, but are facing a revolt from Conservative MPs unwilling to have new houses in their constituencies. 

The Planning Bill is viewed as a crucial cog in the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. It promises to relax the rules surrounding planning applications and lead to a house-building boom that could avert rising house prices and increase home ownership. 

However, some Tory backbenchers believe that, while increased housing may secure support in northern ‘Red Wall’ seats, it will leave the party vulnerable in their traditional heartlands. Former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has caused an early rebellion by arguing that the plans would ‘reduce local democracy’. Her view is based on reports that the Bill will change local plans to allow for a more universal system. 

The Bill is expected to make councils classify land as either ‘protected’, for ‘renewal’ or for ‘growth’, with the latter two categories being looked on favourably or automatically gaining approval for development. This would aim to decrease the time it takes to gain planning permission and increase the amount of affordable housing being built. 

While opponents, such as May, argue that this would restrict local intervention, the government’s briefing documents suggest a determination to increase public engagement with proposals. Currently, government figures estimate that only 3 per cent of local people engage with planning applications.1 In simplifying and digitalising the planning system, it is hoped that more people will understand and engage with developments in their area. 

This shift would increase the importance of communication in applications as developers would need to engage with a larger audience, instead of simply the local council. 

Public consultations and stakeholder engagement would become even more significant in applications, reinforcing the need for the developer’s messaging to be delivered in a consistent and compelling manner. There would also likely be a need for greater digital interaction with the community, placing importance on website content and social media alongside traditional leaflets and newspaper adverts. 

The pandemic has already caused some of these changes. In the last year, we have hosted a number of public consultation webinars for clients, while other developments have created virtual exhibition rooms to support their applications. Innovative approaches such as these will continue to be required as planning applications receive greater engagement, ensuring information is easy to access and to understand. 

Developers should not undervalue the importance of communications and pre application consultations, which could be just as important in securing planning success as robust plans and designs in a simplified planning system. 

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