Documents to download

There have already been several waves of changes to rules on change of use and permitted development rights (PDRs) during the Covid-19 pandemic, with more planning policy changes to come.

For some time, the Government has been signalling its intention to make radical changes to the planning system in England. The Covid-19 pandemic brought about some immediate changes to certain aspects of planning policy – such as enabling pubs to offer hot food takeaway services – while other, substantial changes to the planning system, aimed (the Government says) at creating a new system suitable for the 21st century, are the subject of consultation through the white paper Planning for the Future (PDF). The Government also intends to make some changes to the current planning system and has launched a concurrent consultation (PDF) about that.

Consultations launched in August 2020

Planning for the Future white paper

This briefing seeks to highlight key points within Planning for the Future – those which are perhaps most likely to be of interest to Members and those which have attracted most comment. Readers should refer to the white paper for the detail of the Government’s proposals.

In his speech on the economy on 30 June 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, argued that “newt-counting delays” slowed down house building. He said that, in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, we would “build better and build greener but we will also build faster”.

A planning White Paper had been expected for some time; the long-awaited Planning for the Future white paper (PDF) was launched on 6 August 2020, with an accompanying press release. The press release sets out in the Government’s words what the changes will mean:

  • Local communities will be consulted from the very beginning of the planning process. By harnessing the latest technology through online maps and data, the whole system will be made more accessible
  • Valued green spaces will be protected for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree lined
  • Much-needed homes will be built quicker by ensuring local housing plans are developed and agreed in 30 months – down from the current 7 years
  • Every area to have a local plan in place – currently only 50% of local areas has a plan to build more homes
  • The planning process to be overhauled and replaced with a clearer, rules based system. Currently around a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned at appeal
  • A new simpler national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions which often causes delay
  • The creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings and establishing local design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities
  • All new homes to be ‘zero carbon ready’, with no new homes delivered under the new system needed to be retrofitted as we achieve our commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050

The consultation on these proposed changes closed on 29 October 2020.

Launching the white paper, the then Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, set out how the reforms would simplify the system, while giving more emphasis to quality, design and the environment, and would support recovery from the pandemic.

Reactions to Planning for the Future’s proposals

The proposed reforms received a mixed response and attracted some controversy.

Some welcomed the proposed changes. In the press release accompanying the white paper, the CEO of Gleeson Homes, James Thomson, offered strong support for the proposals and particularly the commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year. In the same press release, the chief UK policy director of the Confederation of British Industry, Matthew Fell, said that the proposed reforms would allow housebuilders to get to work and good quality homes could help meet climate targets. The Chief Executive of Network Homes, Helen Evans, welcomed the proposals which would (she said) help increase the delivery of affordable homes.

There was, though, some fierce criticism. In an open letter (PDF) issued shortly after the Prime Minister’s “build, build, build” speech, the chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Victoria Hills, voiced concern about the approach that the white paper was expected to take and the “planner bashing rhetoric” and argued that sweeping away the planning system was not the right response. The Campaign to Protect Rural England voiced concerns about how community involvement would work within a zoning system and “missed chances” around carbon-neutral, affordable housing. The housing charity, Shelter, expressed concern at the reforms’ potential impact on social housing. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, argued that the changes would be a “disaster for London” and a “nakedly ideological assault on local democracy”.

Review of the current planning system

Also on 6 August 2020, the Government launched a consultation on changes to the current planning system (PDF). The consultation closed on 1 October 2020.

The August 2020 newsletter (PDF) from the chief planner at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG, now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, DLUHC) summarised the proposed changes, which cover four main areas of policy:

Delivering First Homes: Planning issues: First Homes are one form of affordable housing. The consultation document set out proposals for setting developer contributions for First Homes. A quarter of affordable housing on site should be First Homes and the consultation document offered two options for the remaining three quarters.

Threshold for developer contributions: As the Commons Library briefing Planning Obligations (Section 106 Agreements) explains in more detail, planning obligations are legally enforceable obligations entered into under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended) to mitigate the impacts of a development proposal. They may be provided by the developers “in kind”, in the form of financial payments, or (in some cases) as a combination of both. The Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) on planning obligations states that contributions should be sought only for major developments, which for residential development means 10 or more homes or a site with an area of 0.5 hectares or more.

The consultation document proposed to extend the support given to SMEs in economic recovery by raising to 40 or 50 homes the threshold at which developer contributions would be sought, for a time-limited period which would end “as the economy recovers from the impact of Covid-19”. The Government also proposed to scale up the site size threshold at the same proportion as the increase in the number of homes threshold.

Permission in principle: Planning “permission in principle” is a relatively new process (derived from the Housing and Planning Act 2016) for housing-led development. It separates the decision about the principle of whether housing development should be approved from a later technical details consent process; both are required before development can go ahead. The in-principle matters relate to the location, use, and amount of development on a site. Major development is outside the scope of permission in principle, unless the site is entered in Part 2 of a brownfield land register.

The consultation document sought views on extending permission in principle to cover major development. The Government argued that this change too would benefit SMEs.

Standard method for calculating housing need: The consultation proposed to amend the standard method, which must be used unless “exceptional circumstances” justify another approach.

Before the consultation, the standard method comprised three steps (setting the baseline, affordability adjustment and capping the level of increase). The consultation document set out proposals to amend it, to include as a new element a percentage of housing stock levels and an affordability adjustment. Another change was to be the removal of the cap on the level of increase, which (the consultation paper said) “artificially suppresses” identified housing need. The consultation document set out the detail of the two, amended steps – step 1 was setting the baseline and step 2 was adjusting for market signals – and provided the results of the new standard method, which was a national housing need of 337,000 on the basis of currently available data.

The proposed change to the standard method – and in particular the increase in identified housing need it would create for some local planning authorities (LPAs) – attracted a great deal of controversy.

Government announcement on 16 December 2020: standard method for calculating housing need

On 16 December 2020, the Government published its response on local housing need, alongside a written ministerial statement.

The Government response said that it had heard concerns (including in Parliament) that the distribution of need was not right and that it wanted towns and cities to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic renewed and strengthened (especially as the pandemic has changed the way people live, work and travel). The Government therefore confirmed that it would not be proceeding with the changes set out in the consultation.

The Government instead amended the current standard method by adding a 35 per cent uplift to the post-cap number which it generates for Greater London and the local authorities containing the largest proportion of the other 19 most populated cities and urban centres in England (based on the Office for National Statistics list of major towns and cities). These are: London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Leicester, Coventry, Bradford, Nottingham, Kingston upon Hull, Newcastle upon Tyne, Stoke-on-Trent, Southampton, Plymouth, Derby, Reading, Wolverhampton, and Brighton and Hove.

The PPG on housing and economic needs assessment was updated on 16 December 2020 and now includes the uplift as step 4 of the assessment of housing need. The Government has published figures for indicative local housing need, using the updated methodology.

The Government announcement on 16 December 2020 attracted much comment, just as the proposed changes had in their earlier stages.

The Royal Town Planning Institute welcomed the announcement, while expressing concern that a target-based approach to housing was too narrow and wider priorities such as health, infrastructure, net zero carbon goals and the environment should not be side-lined.

The Local Government Association and others also expressed concerns about whether (for example) the new approach might make it harder to achieve the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year or to level up economic activity across disadvantaged areas. Planning magazine quoted the chairman of the Land Promoters and Developers Federation as arguing that the Government had “taken a highly regressive lurch backwards”.

The Commons Library briefing Calculating housing need in the planning system (England) offers more analysis, including the reaction to the December 2020 announcement.

Changes already made

The Government has made various changes to planning rules, some of them in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Others – such as those relating to upward extensions – enact changes that the Government has long advocated.

Some of these changes relate to permitted development rights (PDRs), under which development may take place under a general permission granted by Parliament without requiring an application to the LPA for planning permission. Other changes – introduced through the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 – create new some use classes and abolish some old ones. The Explanatory Memorandum to these Regulations says that transitional provisions (retaining the effect of the PDRs based on use classes in place before these Regulations came into force) will apply until 31 July 2021, when new, revised PDRs for change of use will be introduced. The Commons Library briefing Planning in England: Permitted development and change of use offers detailed analysis.

Other changes were introduced through the Business and Planning Act 2020, which received Royal Assent on 22 July 2020. The Act’s planning provisions are all now in force. The Commons Library briefing on the Bill outlines the changes.

MHCLG published planning guidance to accompany the Business and Planning Act 2020, covering construction working hours, extension of certain planning permissions, making current spatial development strategies available digitally and pavement licences.

The Town and Country Planning (Spatial Development Strategy) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force on 12 August 2020. They made amendments to the Town and Country (London Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2000 and the Combined Authorities (Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2018 relating to how documents are made available for inspection between 12 August 2020 and 31 December 2020. 

The UK Government published a compendium of guidance to local government on coronavirus, including on planning and building safety. The July 2020 update from the chief planner (PDF) at MHCLG outlined the recent changes. Property consultants Lichfields also published an overview of the recent changes, with links to articles offering further commentary.

December 2020 consultation on permitted development rights

The Government held a consultation on revised PDRs between December 2020 and January 2021. 

Main points of the consultation included:

  • A new PDR to allow change of use from the new use class E (commercial, business and service) to C3 residential
  • An amended PDR for the extension of schools, colleagues, universities and hospitals
  • A similar right for prisons and defence sites (but not other residential facilities such as immigration removal centres)
  • Faster decisions on applications for planning permission: for relevant planning applications, the statutory period for determination would be reduced from 13 weeks (or 16 weeks in the case of development requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment) to 10 weeks
  • Existing PDRs would be consolidated and simplified

As with other proposed planning reforms and the existing PDR for office to residential change of use, these proposals – and especially those relating to change of use from Class E commercial, business and service to C3 residential – attracted some criticism. In the Local Government Chronicle, the head of planning and practice at the RTPI and the chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association argued that the changes relating to change of use from Class E to residential could create “a lot of dead frontage” and that expanded PDRs were “not the way” to create necessary housing.

The Government announced in March 2021 that the proposed change to enable change of use from Class E commercial, business and service to C3 residential would go ahead, with a size limit of 1500m2 to the change of use and a requirement that the building had been vacant for three months before the date of application. To prevent gaming, the right would apply only to buildings which had been in commercial, business and service use for two years. The new PDR is therefore subject to some conditions and limits not foreshadowed in the consultation. Other changes to PDRs were also made.

The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development etc.) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021 came into force on 21 April 2021. Its extent is England and Wales but its application is England only. 

What next? The Levelling Up white paper 

The Levelling Up white paper (PDF) was published on 2 February 2021.

One of the Government’s stated aims in the white paper is to “improve pride in place in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas narrowing”. Some of the white paper’s proposals relate to planning.

In a statement to the House of Commons on 2 February 2022, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, outlined its planning and regeneration measures. For the Opposition, the shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Lisa Nandy, suggested that the white paper was “a shopping list of recycled policies and fiddling the figures”.

Many of the Levelling Up white paper’s provisions – such as those for encouraging the use of brownfield land and promoting beauty and good design – were foreshadowed in the white paper Planning for the Future. Commentators have suggested, though, that in some areas the Government might have changed its stance. For example, concerns were expressed at the time that the white paper Planning for the Future’s proposals would reduce local people’s ability to express views on, or object to, individual planning applications. The Levelling Up white paper, though, says that “[t]he ability to have a meaningful say on individual planning applications will be retained”.

In many instances, the Government has committed to doing further work to develop its proposals and more detail is expected in the planning white paper.

Other briefings on various matters to do with planning are available on the topic page for housing and planning


  • Sections 1.5 and 2.1 of this briefing and parts of the summary, dealing with housing requirement and the standard method, and section 6 (formerly section 1.15) on further reading were updated on 8 October 2020.
  • Sections 1.5, 2.1 and 6 were updated again on 11 December 2020, when new section 2.5 on implementation and new section 4.2 on the December 2020 consultation on permitted development rights were added and section 1.14 on transition to the new system, section 3.2 on temporary use of land and relevant parts of the summary were also updated.
  • Section 2.1 was updated again on 12 January 2021.
  • Section 1.2 was updated on 10 March 2021.
  • Section 4.2 on permitted development rights was extended, section 5 on the Levelling Up white paper was added, section 7 was expanded and relevant parts of the summary were again updated on 11 February 2022.
  • Other parts remain (except for some minor amendments) as first published on 20 August 2020.
  • The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was revised and updated in July 2021. Links in this briefing to NPPF 2019 will redirect to NPPF 2021. NPPF 2019 can be found in the national archive.

Documents to download

Related posts