Thursday, 8 December 2011
The planning process
Readers will be aware that I frequently inveigh against the nonsenses of the planning system, and I know there are many other planning professionals who share my views. It is the development management process that is the biggest headache for developers and their advisers. In the majority of cases the outcome is successful from the developer’s point of view (subject to certain reservations about over-prescriptive conditions attached to planning permissions); but what bugs users of the system is the bureaucratic nightmare associated with submitting a planning application in the first place and getting it ‘registered’ by the LPA, with all the extra work and resulting delays which this involves.
Brian Waters (who is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, chairman of the National Planning Forum and immediate past-president of the Association of Consultant Architects) recently wrote an article on this topic in Architects’ Journal, although he stressed that he was writing strictly in a personal rather than a representative capacity. He observed that HM Treasury’s concerns about the drag on the economy due to our increasingly sclerotic planning system have been evident for years. They first emerged with the apparently uncommissioned McKinsey report in the late 1990s and have been reiterated at intervals since then.
Brian’s article continued: “Architects will know that since then things have got worse. A planning application used to be a four-page TP1, a location plan, certificates and some drawings. Now 1APP runs to 12 pages and a mountain of studies and statements for the most modest of proposals. As for policies, just as we got close to national coverage with Unitary Development Plans (UDP) and Local Plans, whoops, the introduction of a new planning act (2004) meant starting all over again with Frameworks, Core Strategies and the rest. Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) turned to Planning Policy Statements (PPS) as national policy got ever-more deterministic, spatial planning got lost in a fog and the long-standing ‘presumption in favour of development’ (vintage 1923) became swamped by ‘plan-led’ decisions with increasingly invasive conditions.
It is the process that needs tackling, not the policies. I predicted in a previous article in Architects’ Journal here that 1APP’s introduction would lead to a ‘train crash’. The Killian-Pretty review was set up to count the bodies and tried to get the system back on track, but the defensive stance of local planning authorities that demand vast wodges of information to cover every possible angle goes on.”
As regards the mountains of studies and statements which Brian mentions, an architect told me recently of some of the irrelevant material which he had been forced to submit to one LPA in order to get an application registered. It included a complex statistical study of some abstruse aspect of the development which the LPA insisted they must have. Whether deliberately or by mistake (I can’t remember which it was), the last 10 pages or so of this document, containing the essential analysis of the data and the conclusions to be drawn from this material, were not copied, thus rendering the document entirely meaningless. Nevertheless, this document was accepted as fulfilling the LPA’s requirements, and the application was registered, processed and determined without any question being raised about this document or its contents. Quite clearly no-one had read this lengthy and expensive study. Its production had in practice been completely unnecessary.
As I have observed before, I am convinced that much of the dissatisfaction about the planning system which has penetrated the consciousness of ministers, including the PM, stems from the actual process rather than from its outcomes. Further reform of the planning system should therefore be concentrated on two areas. The first is the simplification of the requirements associated with the submission of planning applications and the removal of the entirely unnecessary requirements which have been imposed on applicants in recent years. This would include abolishing Design & Access Statements, abolishing national and local validation checklists and restoring a right of appeal where an LPA is delaying determination of an application because of insistence on the provision of information which the applicant considers unnecessary. This would require the amendment of section 62 of the 1990 Act and of corresponding provisions in the DMPO, thus reversing the effect of the High Court judgment in Newcastle Upon Tyne City Council v SSCLG  EWHC 3469 (Admin). [For further details, see my posts on Wednesday, 5 May 2010 - “Validation dispute goes pear-shaped” - and Friday, 13 August 2010 - “A much-needed reform”]
The second area of reform relates to the development plan process. It is vastly over-complicated and needs to be greatly simplified. Repeal of section 38(6) of the 2004 Act would be a great help here, by removing much of the pressure which it and its predecessor (section 54A of the 1990 Act) has placed on the development plan system over the past 20 years. I have repeatedly pointed out that section 70(2) of the 1990 Act provides a perfectly sound basis for development management.
But will the government listen to us? After all, we are only the poor professionals who have to try to make the system work.
© MARTIN H GOODALL