At last, the grown-ups are back in charge of the Government’s planning policy – well almost.  Having promised ‘a whole new planning system for England’ and ‘no more fiddling around the edges’ in the 2020 Planning White Paper, Boris Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill’ promises, well, lots more fiddling around the edges of the current planning system.

And what a lot of fiddling it is. Instead of proposing a consolidation of planning policy, the Bill contains a dizzying array of changes to the current system. In amongst them are some sensible improvements and simplifications, some nods towards improved community engagement but also a further centralisation of power in some key areas.

Gone is the simplistic zoning approach proposed in the White Paper, and the Local Plan will remain the main vehicle for setting out a vision for the future of an area. But to simplify the Local Plan process, the Government proposes to nationalise development management policies to enable Local Plans to focus solely on ‘locally specific’ matters such as allocating land for development, detailing infrastructure requirements and setting aspirations for good design. An area-wide ‘design code’ must be prepared as part of the Local Plan or as a free-standing ‘Supplementary Plan’ that sits alongside the Local Plan. This reinforces the good work that the Government has already been doing to strengthen local authorities’ powers to insist on good design.

Changes are proposed to the ‘Section 106’ regime that is currently used to ensure that developments are accompanied by the necessary infrastructure. A new locally determined Infrastructure Levy is proposed instead, to be calculated as a percentage of the value of a development on completion. Regulations are to be brought forward to detail how this will work in practice, with the intention of ensuring that developments contribute more than at present, including at least as much on-site affordable housing. The detail here will need to be watched carefully. The existing Section 106 regime is likely to be retained in a simplified form for large and complex developments.

Strategic planning is still a mess, and there is no return to the clarity of the regional plans abolished by the Government in 2011.  Joint Local Plans are encouraged and can even be enforced by the Secretary of State if necessary, and voluntary strategic development strategies are also allowed between consenting authorities. In the Cambridge context, the Joint Greater Cambridge Local Plan is already ahead of the game, and for better or worse, the spatial framework promised under the OxCam Arc may still deliver the necessary ‘big picture’ overview to deliver the key infrastructure in areas such as water, transport, green spaces and utilities that Cambridge will need if it is to continue to grow.

At the local level the Bill offers a simplified type of Neighbourhood Plan in the form of a Neighbourhood Priority Statement that can be drawn up by a Parish Council or Neighbourhood Forum, to which the planning authority must give weight when making decisions on planning applications. The much-publicised ‘Street Votes’ will allow residents to vote on ways of extending or redeveloping their houses at a higher density if the majority agrees. With no details yet as to how this will work in practice, I suspect this will die a quiet death in the face of realities such as party wall agreements and the voting rights of tenants, not to mention the minority of residents in a street who may not want to redevelop their bungalow into a four storey neo-Georgian mansion.

Struggling high streets are given a potential boost by giving local authorities the power to auction off leases of shops held vacant for more than a year, although this may only encourage landlords to convert shops into low grade residential accommodation under permitted development rights which, despite huge opposition, remain unaltered by the Bill.

Many other areas are covered by this sprawling Bill, including a welcome enhancement of compulsory purchase powers, streamlined planning enforcement and tighter heritage protections. A new ‘Environmental Outcomes Report’ will replace the EU-compliant Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environment Impact Assessment regimes for major developments, and the detail to be set out in regulations will need to be watched carefully to ensure that the simplification of procedures does not lead to the erosion of protections.

A positive step forward is the proposal to increase fees for planning applications by 35% for major developments and 25% for minor ones. This will begin to provide the additional resources that planning authorities need to take advantage of the provisions of the Bill, particularly in improving design skills and enhancing community engagement.

It is undoubtedly a relief that many of the proposals in the 2020 Planning White Paper have been consigned to the bin, and despite its scattergun approach the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill contains some useful enhancements to the current system. Key areas will still need scrutiny when the relevant regulations start to emerge, but Cambridge is well placed to move ahead swiftly and confidently with its emerging Joint Local Plan.

Peter Studdert is a member of Cambridge Past, Present & Future's Planning Committee and an independent advisor on city planning and design based in Cambridge. He is also a former Director of Planning at Cambridge City Council.