Freeports & Zonal Planning

In February, HM Government published the Freeports Consultation¹ with the strapline “boosting trade, jobs and investment across the UK”. The consultation includes a section on planning as well as tariffs and customs, tax, regeneration, and innovation.

Freeports are defined as secure customs zones located at ports where business can be carried out inside a country’s border but where different customs rules apply. However, the Government proposes a bespoke model which would include multiple customs zones located within or away from a port, to maximise flexibility for port operators and businesses.

The Government aim to create up to 10 Freeports across the UK, and the consultation proposes the use of zonal planning in Freeports i.e. local development orders² (LDOs).

In my experience, LDOs are progressed in two ways:
* one is where the landowner/developer and local authority both see the advantages of an LDO and work together to adopt one;
* the other is where the local authority adopts an LDO without developer/landowner input in the hope that it attracts use and development.

The consultation asks whether there are suitable incentives in place that encourage the use of LDOs by local authorities. But without known developer interest or market demand, there will be little incentive for a local authority to adopt an LDO for a Freeport site.

Therefore, for Freeport sites, the focus should be on the landowner/developer to work with the local planning authority to put an LDO in place. Where the landowner/developer is not aware of the benefits of LDOs, they should be advertised as they can help to save time, money and costs compared with other forms of planning permission. For example, LDOs can:
* Be adopted with bespoke planning fees – e.g. pay half the normal application fee.
* Be “front-loaded”, so that technical work and surveys can be done as part of the drafting process, rather than required through conditions, thereby saving time and costs.
* Require much simpler forms to be submitted that ensure proposals comply with an LDO, rather than full planning application forms.
* Have bespoke determination periods – e.g. 4 weeks rather than the 8 weeks for a minor planning application.
* Bring economies of scale by front-loading supporting studies and technical surveys at the LDO adoption stage, as one Freeport-wide drainage strategy would cost less than several strategies for small plots within the Freeport site.

The consultation also asks about the availability and take-up of LDOs, and how they are being used to support development.

Research³ published on the DLA website earlier this year provides evidence on the take-up and use of LDOs in Enterprise Zones.

The Enterprise Zone policy required simplified planning measures to be put in place in Enterprise Zones, but in practice only 40 LDOs have been adopted and only 20 of these have been used (i.e. ‘applications’ have been submitted using the LDO). On an Enterprise Zone level, only 20 out of 44 Enterprise Zones have had access to an LDO.

Therefore, the policy requirement to put simplified planning measures in place was not achieved. This lack of take up may have been due to:
* a lack of resources or skills/knowledge within LPAs;
* a lack of best practice in how to assemble LDOs for employment sites;
* a lack of awareness of LDOs from the landowner/developer; and/or,
* other forms of planning permission were preferred or necessary (e.g. outline).

So, the Freeport consultation question should really be: “What’s the most appropriate form of planning permission / strategy to facilitate development at Freeport sites?”

Based on the above research findings, each proposed Freeport site should be screened to understand whether an LDO is the right form of planning permission to facilitate development. The screening process should seek to understand, the existing context (development form, potential development form, available infrastructure, etc.) to help assess whether an LDO is right. But principally it should seek to understand whether the landowner is willing to pay for the LDO’s technical work (such as the transport assessment and drainage assessment). Without an effective and front loaded LDO, there will be less incentive to use it by prospective developers and it won’t attract development.

Robert Hayward is a Principal Planner at David Lock Associates. The views expressed are personal.