Yesterday’s Autumn Statement was keenly awaited by many. Among the news that developers hoped to learn was what we can expect for planning reform, on which see our post here. Have we got the clarity that we were hoping for? To some extent perhaps. From a planning point of view the Autumn Statement may have been as interesting for what it did not say as what it did – we were given some news on the future of Investment Zones and the government’s commitment to levelling up, but little more. However we are left with the sense that, with Michael Gove back in charge at DLUHC, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will continue to progress through Parliament as though he had not left – it enters the Report Stage in the House of Commons next week on 23 November 2022. We also had news on other areas of the law which affect our practice, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill in particular (more commonly known as the “Brexit Freedoms Bill”). Here is a brief summary and analysis of the announcements of particular interest to planning and development.
The government remains committed to investing in infrastructure as one of its three “growth priorities” (the other two being “energy” and “innovation”). It will invest over £600 billion over the next five years, including in railways (eg East West Rail, core Northern Powerhouse Rail and High Speed 2 to Manchester) and digital infrastructure (Project Gigabit). However, in another move away from the Growth Plan 2022, it “will seek to accelerate delivery of projects across its infrastructure portfolio, rather than focus on the list of projects that were flagged for acceleration in the Growth Plan”. Importantly for us, planning reform is specifically flagged as one of the ways that infrastructure delivery will be speeded up – the intention remains to update National Policy Statements for transport, energy and water which will be done next year.
The Chancellor confirmed the government’s commitment to deliver new nuclear power, with an express commitment to Sizewell C subject signing the contracts for the initial investment (expected “in the coming weeks”). The government is also committed to rolling out “cheap, clean renewables, including wind and solar”, although there was no specific mention of onshore wind. The Chancellor also confirmed a “new national ambition” of reducing energy consumption by buildings and industry by 15% by 2030. The Secretary of State for BEIS will publish more details in due course of the government’s “energy independence plans” and launch a new Energy Efficiency Taskforce.
However, of interest on solar particularly were the comments of the Environment Secretary later in the day, which have been interpreted as signalling the government will continue with the proposals to reclassify category 3b agricultural land as best and most versatile. This would be likely to have a severely stifling effect on the delivery of solar projects, with 60% of agricultural land being defined as best and most versatile land and the planning guidance which provides that development on such land should be avoided.
Levelling up and devolution
The Chancellor has confirmed the government’s commitment to levelling up, noting that successful bids in the second round of the Levelling Up Fund will be announced before the end of 2022. We’ve also been told that the government “remains committed to giving more local areas greater power to drive local growth and tackle local challenges”, and also committed to the principle that all areas in England that want one will have a devolution deal by 2030. A devolution deal has been agreed with Suffolk County Council and deals are under discussion with Cornwall, Norfolk and the North East of England. New “trailblazer” devolution deals with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authorities should be delivered by early next year with the hope that more will follow.
The government has all but scrapped Investment Zones as we know them – the Chancellor confirmed that “the existing expressions of interest will … not be taken forward”. However, the Investment Zones programme will not be abandoned altogether but instead be “refocussed” to “catalyse a limited number of the highest potential knowledge-intensive growth clusters” centred on universities in “left behind areas”. We are told that the first such clusters will be announced “in the coming months”. Given the number of authorities who put forward bids in the initial round, this may be a disappointment to many although not all – some authorities were understandably concerned about the potential erosion of environmental protections in the Investment Zones programme.
Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022-23
On the subject of erosion of environmental protections, the government yesterday committed to “rapidly” reviewing retained EU law, prioritising “key growth industries … to identify changes that can be made over the next year which have the greatest potential to unlock growth”. The five key growth industries prioritised for this purpose are digital technology, life sciences, green industries, financial services and advanced manufacturing. Interestingly, however, neither the Chancellor in his speech nor the Autumn Statement 2022 documents themselves mention the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill by name. This Bill is currently in Committee Stage and has proved controversial given the amount of legislation that needs to be reviewed before the proposed sunset date of 31 December 2023. We’ll have to wait to find out whether this Bill will continue to be taken forward or whether the Autumn Statement announcement means that the Bill, in its current form at least, will be reviewed.
Business rates and online sales tax
Whilst not expressly planning matters, the impact of business rates on the health high streets and town centres has been of concern for some time. Landowners and developers will therefore be interested to learn that, although targeted support is to be offered to support businesses with business rates (which are to be updated from 1 April 2023 to reflect changes in values since 2017), the government has decided not to introduce the online sales tax which many owners and occupiers had been advocating for. We’re told that the government’s response to February’s Online Sales Tax: Policy Consultation will be published shortly.
We can expect an announcement on what the new Investment Zone package will look like “in the coming months”. However, it’s not clear whether we will receive more clarity from DLUHC on what all this means for the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill – the Bill may simply continue its passage through Parliament. Overall, this mainly leaves us where we were before the political upheaval of the summer – planning reform being taken forward through a levelling up agenda, with a Bill which provides limited flesh on the bones of system change leaving most of the detail to secondary legislation. Any further announcements will be eagerly anticipated.
For the Chancellor’s speech in full, see here.
Update – on 17 November 2022 the Secretary of State published a Written Ministerial Statement confirming the government’s commitment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and noting that a number of government amendments to the Bill have been tabled.
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