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Two Years After its Introduction – What Impact has the Planning (Wales) Act Had?

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This piece was written by Steve Morris, partner and expert in planning at Acuity Legal.

It is now nearly two years since the Planning (Wales) Act 2015 received royal assent, but because of its piecemeal implementation, it is too early to assess its overall impact. In some areas it cries out to be fully implemented, if only to provide clarity in approach between the English and the Welsh systems. The Act wasn’t intended to be a complete reform of the planning system, but it was the first separate planning act for Wales since the area was largely devolved in 2011.

The aims of the Act are well rehearsed – to modernise the system, reiterate and strengthen the plan-led approach, encourage local authorities to work together and to improve the development management system. As part of this, significant changes were also made to enforcement and appeals and the protection of town and village greens. Here we look at what has changed in the two years since the act was introduced.

Plan-led approach

The plan-led approach established two new levels of development plan above the existing local development plans. A National Development Framework will replace the much-maligned Wales Spatial Plan and will have additional ‘teeth’, in that all other development plans must conform to it. The Assembly is due to consider the draft framework between October and December 2019. The Welsh Government recently completed a consultation and a report will follow of its findings. In the next stage, the strategic development plans and panels will establish key development areas straddling the boundaries of local authorities. Cardiff, Swansea and the A55 corridor have been identified as potential areas. The guidance on preparing plans is expected by winter.

Infrastructure and sustainability

The secondary legislation that dealt with the most nationally significant infrastructure projects under the Act came into force on 1 March 2016. Due to their complexity and impacts these projects, such as airport-related development or construction or alteration of a railway, are to be determined at the national level to meet fixed statutory time periods and create certainty. Applications are made to the Welsh Ministers directly, similar to the scheme in England.

The sustainable development objectives of the Act came into force on 1 April 2016. Since their implementation a genuine spirit of collaboration seems to be developing, for example, through the public services boards established under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 .

Consultation

One of the reforms in the Act that has had the most significant practical impact in recent months is the requirement for an applicant proposing a major development to undertake 28 days’ pre-application consultation with the public, town and community council, and relevant statutory consultees, before submitting an application. This was brought in from August 2016. However, reaction has been mixed, with some feeling it has led to a “double consultation” period causing additional unnecessary delays. It can, however, provide a useful “breathing space” in which to tailor an application and avoid challenge.

Town and village greens

Amendments to the treatment of town and village greens have taken longer to implement and have left developers exposed as a result. In England it has been possible since 2013 for a landowner to deposit a statement and map with the commons registration authority to end any period of use “as of right” for sports and pastimes on land, without the need to erect hoardings or signage. For the same period England has provided for “trigger events”, such as an application for planning permission, which further prevent registration as a town and village green. Implementation in Wales is earmarked for the end of this year but the trigger events will be fewer and will take effect later in the process, creating a key difference in approach between Wales and England.

Diverging systems

The market looked forward to the Planning (Wales) Act as it was considered a welcome attempt to speed up and simplify the planning process as well as give some consistency between the decisions of the different local planning authorities. However, there were also concerns in the early stages of the bill that it would centralise decisions and leave people in local communities powerless. It’s still early days, but it’s clear the equivalent systems in Wales and England reflect each other but are increasingly diverging in both legislation and policy. It’s essential for developers to be aware of these divergences, which will only become more pronounced as the Welsh legislation develops.