The Research and Development (R&D) sector continues to be an area of focus and investment for the UK Government as part of the Levelling Up agenda. With the London-Oxford-Cambridge Golden Triangle well-established as a world-leading life sciences cluster, the Government is endeavouring to replicate this success across the UK. In February this year the Government published the Levelling Up White Paper setting out ambitious medium-term “missions” as part of a programme designed to “level up” the UK, including a mission to increase public investment in R&D outside the South East by at 33% over Parliament and at least 40% by 2030. This mission is to serve as an anchor for policy across government.

The new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill published in May this year has been introduced off the back of the White Paper to support the Government’s manifesto commitment to level up the UK. Although the Bill lacks any specific mention of the R&D sector, we explore below how the proposed introduction of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs) could operate to encourage and incentivise R&D growth across the UK.

The Bill makes provision for new NDMPs to be made by the Secretary of State in relation to the development or use of land in England. The Bill requires planning decisions to be made in accordance with the development plan and NDMPs “unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise”. Currently, the legislation only requires planning decisions to be made in accordance with the development plan “unless material considerations indicate otherwise”. In the event of a conflict between a development plan and NDMP, the Bill dictates that the NDMP will have primacy. Further, a new provision around the development of local plans would prevent local plans from being inconsistent with or repeating any NDMP.

The content and scope of any NDMPs are obviously yet to be confirmed but given the Government’s focus on the R&D sector, and stated mission to increase public funding in R&D as part of the levelling up agenda, NDMPs could offer a tool for developing policy to encourage and incentivise R&D development across England. Designating a policy that recognises the contribution that the R&D sector makes to the UK economy, and creates favourable conditions for high-quality R&D development projects to come through in appropriate locations as NDMP, in tandem with the Government’s promised financial investment in the R&D sector would contribute to the Government’s overall vision of levelling up the UK.

The London Plan provides a good example of a policy that seeks to promote and grow the R&D sector. For example, Policy E8 of the London Plan states that London’s role as a location for research and development should be supported, and collaboration between businesses, higher education providers and other relevant research and innovation organisations encouraged. Policy E8 also supports the promotion and development of clusters such as Tech City and MedCity where opportunities exist.

Making a similar policy on a national level through an NDMP which planning decisions must be made in accordance with unless material considerations strongly indicate otherwise, and which local plans must not be inconsistent with, is one mechanism that the Government could use to support and promote the R&D sector. To date, the discussion around the new NDMPs has focused on the implications for housing land supply. To level up the UK, the Government will need to ensure that national planning policy seeks robust local policies supporting new jobs and fostering clusters of R&D development in appropriate locations with a good supply of housing land, public transport and amenities which are critical to attracting and retaining talent.

The Bill has passed its second reading and is now at Committee. If the provisions regarding NDMPs are carried through to the Act in their current form, those looking to bring forward R&D developments should keep an eye on the content of any NDMPs.