Sunday, 4 May 2014
Validation nonsense continues
I had hoped (perhaps rather naively) that the legislative changes made by the 2013 Act and by the accompanying amendments to the Development Management Procedure Order would put an end to the nonsense that we had been experiencing in recent years from some (in fact quite a few) local planning authorities over the validation and registration of planning applications, but anecdotal evidence indicates that problems over the registration of planning applications are still widespread, and in some authorities worse than ever. It is an issue to which ministers need to give urgent attention if they are serious about reducing delays in the planning system and general frustration over its bureaucratic complexities.
The root cause of the problem is the target culture, for which both the present government and their predecessors must share the blame. This has bedevilled so many parts of the public sector, inducing a tick-box mentality, and giving public sector bodies (whether it be NHS trusts or local planning authorities) a significant incentive to ‘fudge’ the figures by, in the case of the NHS, not putting patients on a waiting list for weeks or months after they have been referred to a consultant by their GP or, in the case of LPAs, by using any and every excuse to delay or avoid ‘registering’ a planning application. Budget cuts and the resulting paucity of experienced planning staff has only compounded the problem.
It was the introduction of local validation checklists that gave LPAs a heaven-sent opportunity to find all sorts of flimsy excuses for failing or refusing to register a planning application. It is a rare case indeed where more than a handful of the types of information set out in these validation checklists is actually required, but the fact that an item appears on the LPA’s standard checklist can give rise to endless arguments over whether or not a specific item of information is really necessary in a particular case. It is infuriating to be faced with a refusal to register an application in such cases, and even more annoying if it happens more than a fortnight after the application was submitted.
Examples are too numerous to list, but include a demand for photo-montages of the street scene (whether or not the site is in a conservation area), petty arguments over scaling of plans, demands for ecological reports when the development quite clearly raises no ecological issues, and so on and so on. I appreciate that there is now a mechanism for challenging and, if necessary, appealing against unreasonable demands for information, but very few developers would want to waste further time and yet more expense by going down that route.
I am told that some authorities no longer accept cheques in payment of application fees (although I have not encountered this myself), which causes a further headache for developers and their agents.
Clearly the legislative changes made last year have made no difference to the behaviour of many LPAs, and some authorities seem blissfully unaware of them or of the change of culture that they were intended to encourage. Something much more drastic is required in order to put a stop to the continuing nonsense over the validation and registration of planning applications. The whole concept of the ‘validation’ and the ‘registration’ of an application as a distinct administrative process is only a quite recent innovation. Ministers should take urgent steps to do away with this part of the process altogether.
A planning application should be considered valid if an appropriate form (which should not require a signature), and a plan “sufficient to identify the application site” (but not necessarily drawn to any particular scale), plus drawings of the proposed development in the case of an application for full permission, is submitted to the LPA, accompanied by the tender of the appropriate fee, whether by cash, cheque or some form of electronic funds transfer. The form should be considered complete if it identifies the application site by reference to its ordinary postal address or some other description sufficient to enable it to be identified and specifies the development for which planning permission is sought (in words of the applicant’s choosing). Other information may be given on the form (such as proposed drainage arrangements, etc.), but should not be considered mandatory at that stage. Note the absence of any reference here to a Design & Access Statement – they are entirely unnecessary, and should be done away with altogether.
The LPA should be obliged to enter this application forthwith in the planning register, irrespective of whether or not sufficient information to enable the application to be determined has been submitted at this stage, and time for all purposes should be deemed to run from the date of receipt of the application, irrespective of the date on which it is entered in the planning register.
Before planning officers throw up their hands in horror at these suggestions, they should be aware that this was exactly how the system worked before we got bogged down in all the bureaucratic nonsense that has been foisted on developers and their agents in recent years. There was, of course, and should continue to be, a right for an LPA to request further information. An LPA had, and would continue to have, the right to refuse permission on the grounds that insufficient information had been provided to enable planning permission to be granted. Faced with a request for further information which a developer considers unreasonable, there should be an immediate right of appeal (as there used to be). This would take the form of a full appeal under section 78, so that the planning inspector, if there is sufficient information to do so (including any additional information produced in the course of the appeal), may grant planning permission, or may alternatively dismiss the appeal if, in the inspector’s judgement, the information provided by the appellant is insufficient to enable planning permission to be granted.
In the vast majority of cases, common sense would prevail on both sides, and developers would ensure that sufficient information is provided, either when submitting the application or subsequently, to enable the application to be properly considered. At the same time, LPAs would be less likely to make unreasonable demands for information. In contrast to the current situation, demanding extra information would be of no advantage to the LPA in ‘massaging’ its performance figures; in fact delays caused by unreasonable demands for information would have an adverse impact on their statistics.
Many of us who have to work with the planning system on behalf of developers will not take seriously the protestations of ministers that they are ‘reforming’ and streamlining the planning system, until the changes outlined above are made. Nothing less will do.
© MARTIN H GOODALL