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Applications for a permission in principle (PIP) are now available for small housing developments in England.

The initial legislation was passed two years ago, having been introduced in phases, in tandem with a 2015 law enforcing councils to keep a register of brownfield land which is suitable for housing.

Up until this change, PIPs could only be granted by the local planning authority (LPA) through 'Part 2' of their brownfield land registers. Now, small scale residential developers can apply to the LPA for permission in principle directly. Forms are available from the Planning Portal.

The scheme aims to hasten delivery of housing across England by providing an accessible and clear indication of a site's suitability for development, hopefully boosting investor confidence in the process. In this respect, the process should be similar to pre-application advice, with the main difference being that PIP offers a binding outcome.

Described as one of the most significant overhauls to the planning system for roughly 60 years, a key objective is separating 'in principle' matters (e.g. land use, location and amount of development) from technical aspects of the development.

What is the purpose of permission in principle?

The essential premise behind PIP applications is providing a more affordable route for developers and investors to establish whether a site is or isn't suitable for new housing.

The combination of legislation, described above, requires a register of brownfield land sites of over 0.25 hectares which are suitable for development of five residential dwellings or more. Clearly, this puts a bigger burden on local authorities to identify and promote housing sites. Local authorities are also expected to respect national schemes, such as the development plan and National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), when establishing whether permission should be granted.

From June 1st, applications for permission in principle can be made directly – as opposed to being limited to securing permission via a site's listing on the brownfield register. This will potentially make promoting land for disposal and development easier for landowners compared to the traditional route of achieving outline planning permission.

Separating the technical from principle aspects of planning is also motivated by an aim to allow development permission to be granted when only limited technical information is available. This should hopefully result in reducing costs while increasing confidence for potential developers, allowing them to "test the water" before committing large sums for investment.

How do permission in principle applications work?

Permission in principle can only be granted for developments which are housing-led. Any site of up between five to nine homes can be considered, with the scope for the local authority's decision-making limited to location, land use and the amount of development proposed.

Non-residential developments (such as retail, office and community space) may also be considered, providing that the majority of floor space in the scheme is occupied by housing.

There are a number of exemptions and exclusions for PIP provided in the latest guidance, significantly limiting wider applicability. Limitations include:

  • Developments with either:
    • over 10 dwellings
    • floor space over 1,000 sq. m.
    • over one hectare on-site
  • Developments which could significantly affect a European site or offshore marine site without a clear connection or necessity
  • Developments of an existing dwelling or within the curtilage of the dwelling's site
  • Developments requiring an Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA)
  • Sites subject to Habitats legislation

Applications can be made to the LPA or Secretary of State via a new form (published by the Secretary of State), or a form which is substantially the same. The form should be provided with a plan identifying the land, drawn to an identified scale and indicating North. There is a payable application fee of £402 per 0.1 hectare of the site area which must be provided. If a decision is not made within five weeks of an application being received, the applicant may appeal to the Secretary of State for non-determination.

Brownfield land registers must state the minimum and maximum dwellings permitted, as well as a description of the specifics and scale of any non-residential allocation. Once a site has been entered into Part 2 of the register, permission in principle is considered to be granted. (Developers, naturally, should check the register to see if the relevant site already has permission in principle.)

After establishing PIP, obtaining full planning permission simply involves a subsequent application for technical details consent (TDC). This is the stage in which the detailed proposals for the development are fully assessed. A valid application can be made by the same process as an application for full planning permission, as long as the application is made within three years (or five, if PIP was allocated through Part 2 of the brownfield land register).

There is no right of appeal should a site not be included in Part 2 of the brownfield register. This is because a full planning application can still be submitted for the site. However, applicants may appeal against non-determination or refusal of an application for technical details consent.

See: official guidance on permission in principle.

In summary

It is not clear yet whether the intended aims for PIP will come to fruition. There are many industry experts voicing concerns.

Fundamentally, PIP and TDC are not too distinct from current definitions of 'outline' and 'detailed' planning. There is also some debate about whether the PIP method even promotes any kind of cost saving, with TDC being equally as onerous as existing planning assessment requirements. There are further concerns that LPAs lack the resources to assess site viability and keep a satisfactory stock of sites in brownfield land registers.

Thanks to the breadth of exemptions for PIP applications, initial take-up is likely to be fairly limited, so it may take a while before the impacts of the policy can be fully appreciated. However, the Government maintains that the changes will benefit developers – especially those needing fast decisions on the viability of small scale housing developments, who are now able to obtain funding without incurring the cost of full planning permission.

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