Levelling Up bill sidesteps major planning reforms

Government sidesteps major planning reforms but supports local leaders to control regeneration.

Leading industry figures have described the UK government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration bill as the ‘death knell’ for major planning reforms, while also highlighting the lack of emphasis on net zero that a truly sustainable planning system would help to achieve.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration bill, announced the day after the Queen’s Speech last week, will enshrine in law the government’s commitment to long-term missions to spread opportunity, drive productivity and boost local pride in every corner of the country.

Right homes in the right places

The bill will deliver new reforms to the planning system, which ministers claim will produce more local infrastructure, is shaped by local people’s democratic wishes, improves environmental outcomes, and occurs with neighbourhoods very much in mind.

The measures, which ministers say have been informed by over 40,000 responses made to the government’s 2020 ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper, and inquiry by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, include:

  • Local plans - the way in which councils set the vision for future development in their area and decide whether to give planning permission - will gain stronger legal weight and be made simpler to produce. Communities will have a major say in these plans giving them more opportunity to shape what happens in their areas. Currently 61% of councils do not have an up to date local plan, which leaves communities exposed to development on which they haven’t had a meaningful say.
  • A digitised planning system making plans and planning applications fully available on your smartphone.
  • Stronger protections for the environment in local plans, empowering councils to make better use of brownfield land and protect precious greenbelt land.
  • Local design codes will be made mandatory so that developers have to respect styles drawn up and favoured locally - from the layout or materials used, to how it provides green space.

Other levelling up measures in the bill include creating a legal duty for the government to set and report on a number of missions for levelling up the country. These missions will include: closing the gap in pay and productivity between the richest and poorest areas, aiming to eradicate child illiteracy and innumeracy, closing gaps in healthy life expectancy, getting the rest of the country’s transport connectivity much closer to the standards of London’s, and enabling more areas to have the kinds of devolved powers which currently only the largest cities enjoy, helping drive improvements on local priorities such as transport and skills.


The bill will also directly give local leaders the powers they need to regenerate their communities, and transform their high streets and town centres. A new infrastructure levy will see the big developers contribute more towards better local roads, schools, hospitals, and genuinely affordable housing. Communities will also receive a share of the levy revenue raised - as long as they have a parish or town council – and ministers are exploring how this could be expanded.

The measures, include:

  • New powers for local leaders to run High Street Rental Auctions, where they can auction off tenancies in shops that have been vacant for over a year. This will help to end the plague of empty shops that blight so many high streets.
  • Councils will also be able to double council tax on empty and second homes, ensuring everyone pays their fair share towards local services and boost levelling up.
  • The ‘al-fresco dining revolution’ will be made permanent, injecting new life into the high street through creating a sustainable process for communities, business and local authorities, making it permanently cheaper and quicker to get a licence for outdoor dining.
  • A new, locally set infrastructure levy, charged on the final value of property when its sold, will replace much of the S106 payments system. This will see the big developers contribute far more of the money they make from development towards building better local roads, rail, schools, hospitals, and more affordable housing.
  • Legislation to make it easier for councils to regenerate their town centres through Compulsory Purchase Orders, making the process quicker and easier to use.

Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove said: “This bill puts in place the reforms we need to level up. It enshrines our levelling up missions in law, which will shift resources and focus throughout this decade to the parts and people of the country who need it most. It enables every part of England which wants a London-style mayor to have one. It empowers local people, not the big developers, to take back control of regeneration in their community.

“It shifts power out of Whitehall by giving local leaders the powers they need to tackle the blight of empty shops on high streets and to regenerate their communities. This is underpinned by a firm belief that by far the best placed people to level up communities are the people who live there. We want everyone to be given the opportunity to stay local but go far.”

Industry reaction

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive officer at the UK Green Building Council, said: “In the climate crisis, it is unfathomable not to see net zero as a centrepiece of the Levelling Up and Regeneration bill. Today’s bill could have reset how the planning system ensures sustainable development becomes the norm through design and local planning requirements, but we merely got a small step in that direction. 

“As the bill goes through Parliament, we want to see amendments that will deliver a truly sustainable planning system, where it acts as the fulcrum to align planning with our legally binding climate targets and net zero pathway. Critically, planning reform must also tackle the current inconsistencies with how environmental impact is considered within local planning applications, letting us unlock large scale green investment.” 

Joshua Carson, head of policy at Blackstock Consulting, said: "The government's decision to abandon the 'three areas types' or zonal approach to housing delivery is the Planning Bill's final death knell. As the lynchpin of proposed reforms, zonal planning was designed to make it easier for councils to deliver housing in a strategic and more objective way, similar to other European states. 'Street votes', and the potential creation of locally-led development corporations, signal a clear intention to transfer power from the government to the neighbourhood level, with fewer incentives to build homes for the next generation who need them."

Dave Sheridan, executive chairman of modular housebuilding specialist ilke Homes, said: "We've seen this week that DLUHC have all but abandoned the 300,000-homes-a-year target, while introducing a street votes policy that will empower local communities to have a say on local design codes. While encouraging more people to get involved in the planning system is welcome, these piecemeal reforms shouldn't be used as a sticking plaster for urgently needed reform of the planning system - which so often holds back the delivery of much-needed housing and the consequential creation of jobs."

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