Friday, 7 March 2014

Useless new planning guidance

Those of us working at the planning coal face will be well aware that the government’s on-line planning guidance finally went live yesterday (replacing the ‘beta’ version), and rejoices in the name of “National Planning Practice Guidance” (NPPG), not to be confused with the “National Planning Policy Framework” (NPPF). The two documents need to be read together (assuming you can actually find your way around the on-line version of the NPPG!).

There is a long 13-page table of withdrawn circulars and other publications, which have been cancelled with effect from 6 March 2014. The list is far too lengthy to summarise here, but a quick glance down the list indicates that among the withdrawn circulars are some old favourites, including some which, in my professional opinion, it was folly to scrap. These include Circular 11/95 - The Use of Conditions in Planning Permissions (1995) - an absolutely vital source of guidance on this topic, Circular 10/97 - Enforcing planning control: legislative provisions and procedural requirements and annexes (1997) - another absolutely crucial guide to policy and procedure in this area of planning law, as well as the accompanying Enforcing Planning Control: Good Practice Guidance for Local Planning Authorities (1997), also Annex E to PPG7 on Agricultural PD (1997) – not perhaps so important, but it was still a useful guide to that topic, Circular 03/09 - Costs Awards in Appeals and other Planning Proceedings (2009) - another document that had proved to be of great help in dealing with costs in planning appeals, as well as Planning and other appeals, and the award of costs (2013). We must also mourn the passing of Letter to Chief Planning Officers (2012): Liberalising the regime for flying flags (a personal favourite), and so the list goes on. Many other documents and useful ‘letters to chief planning officers’ have bitten the dust, including Protected Trees: a guide to tree preservation procedures (2012) and Main changes to the tree preservation order system in England from 6 April 2012 (2012).

This is where I get really annoyed. The 11 sections of the new guidance are no substitute for the procedural advice and guidance in the replaced circulars. To take an example, Part 6 of the document (“Use of Planning Conditions”) is hopelessly inadequate as a replacement of Circular 11/95. It does not even begin to answer many of the points that will inevitably arise in practice, and will leave the many users of the planning system, not to mention LPAs and the Planning Inspectorate, without any guidance as to how such issues should be resolved. This will lead to doubt and uncertainty on this important topic; the outcome of appeals (for example against the refusal of section 73 applications) will become increasingly unpredictable, and the number of legal challenges to appeal decisions is likely to increase.

In the same way, Part 10 of the document “Ensuring effective enforcement” hardly scratches the surface of important areas of enforcement practice and procedure that were covered by Circular 10/97. Try, for example to find in the NPPG any material that would replace Annex 8 of the circular. I tried searching “Gabbitas”, a crucial case on the evidential requirements in respect of a section 191 application, which had been helpfully explained in paragraph 8.15 of the circular. Result: Nothing. So I tried searching “balance of probability”, and amongst a lot of irrelevant references to flood prevention(!) found a paragraph that simply said: “ Article 35 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) Order 2010 (as amended), specifies the contents of an application and how it must be submitted................An application needs to describe precisely what is being applied for (not simply the use class) and the land to which the application relates. Without sufficient or precise information, a local planning authority may be justified in refusing a certificate. This does not preclude another application being submitted later on, if more information can be produced.”. Hopeless! OK; as a very experienced planning professional, I really don’t need to be told how to make an LDC application, but there are a good many planning officers who have a completely erroneous idea of the need for ‘corroborative’ evidence. Paragraph 8.15 put them right on this, but I have been able to find nothing similar to guide them in the NPPG. Nonetheless, the High Court judgment in F W Gabbitas v. SSE is still of binding authority on this issue, and woe betide the LPA that gets it wrong in a case with which I am dealing.

The shiny new “National Planning Practice Guidance” is precisely the opposite of what the government purportedly intended, yet they have brought this about by the sheer folly of their blinkered determination to “reform” the planning system by removing the very ministerial guidance that has underpinned the operation of the planning system for the past 65 years. Far from “making it simpler, clearer and easier for people to use”, this change will have precisely the opposite effect. Those of us who are thoroughly familiar with the planning system are well aware of the way the system works, but pity the poor layman who has only the NPPG to go on!

I have no intention of discarding my copies of circulars such as 11/95 and 10/97, among other very useful summaries of practice and procedure, and I intend to go on referring to them in applications and appeals, even though they have been cancelled. The principles that they explained continue to be relevant and applicable, and so it seems entirely proper to refer to them as a reliable guide to the correct approach to be taken to the many issues that crop up in the course of dealing with planning cases.

I predict that the government (perhaps a future government, but that may be no more than 14 months away) will be forced to revisit this practice guidance and to beef it up substantially, by restoring much of the detail that has been so wantonly discarded. Meanwhile, be prepared for a bumpy ride while LPAs and Planning Inspectors attempt to grapple with the wholly inadequate procedural guidance that they are now to be expected to rely on.



Chris Tofts said...

I agree. E.g. MPG14 cut down from 58 pages to about 3; less guidance does not make planning simpler.

Evan Owen - Snowdonia said...

What a shambles, a complete and utter disaster even if inspectors have recently been ignoring the wise words contained in Circular 11/95. More work for lawyers though Martin!

onceisawafishalive said...

This forms part of an overall government strategy to reduce the volume of guidance and advice.

A number of departments (And quangos) have significantly reduced The amount of published advice and guidance and are moving towards further significant reductions, by up to 85 percent.

Several years ago, the office of the Deputy Prime Minister hosted many useful documents relating to commercial leases. Much of this guidance has now disappeared. Similarly, as information has moved to, (part of the IT strategy) helpful guidance and advice has disappeared leaving big information gaps.

Well written concise guidance is essential for efficient administration but reducing or withdrawing guidance is not the same as cutting red tape and reform.

More and more guidance will be withdrawn and no longer hosted at There are documents I now wish I had saved before guidance documents "year zero".

EMB said...

It seems to represent at least a serious first attempt at simplification, something which is both desirable and difficult. The writing style here seems to me to work better on this than it does on the regulations - by far. Having all the guidance in the one place is going to be an improvement. Having it online is going to be better in the long run. I expect some of the deleted guidance will find its way back in over time, and in the meantime, there is nothing to stop anyone from referring to it. You can reason that it is the documents that have been withdrawn, and that the old content still holds good unless the new guidance actually conflicts with it.

Karl Roberts said...

Here is a challenge for you all on a wet weekend (of which there are many). If you think the NPPG is rubbish, and I agree it is, then why not draft and put forward your own version. Many of the points you make I think most practitioners would agree with.

Martin H Goodall LARTPI said...

In response to Karl Roberts (28/03/14) - Time simply doesn’t allow me to embark on what would be a major drafting exercise, which in any event may not commend itself to Sir Humphrey Appleby and his cohorts (the ‘NIH syndrome’).

Some commentators seem to have got slightly over-excited in anticipating further substantial relaxations in planning control through the medium of a substantially re-cast GPDO. I somehow doubt whether this will actually be the eventual outcome of the promised review. But we can at least hope for the tidying up of some pretty dire drafting in certain parts of the Order.