Friday18 August 2017

Dear Greg Clark, how will opening up planning to competition actually work?

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Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, examines the implications of allowing private firms to assess planning applications

Planning minister Brandon Lewis announced to weary MPs at a late-night sitting of Parliament, shortly after their return from the Christmas break, that the secretary of state, Greg Clark, had inserted a clause into the Housing & Planning Bill in late December to open up the processing of planning applications to competition.

Mike Kiely

Mike Kiely

The draft schedule states that the scheme would allow applications in pilot areas to be processed, “if the applicant so chooses”, not by a local planning authority (LPA) but by “a designated person” (DP). Let’s look at whether this is a good idea.

Some commentators have likened it to approved inspectors for building control and they see no reason why such a system cannot work in planning. Whether it could work is to be seen, but the building control model does not provide much helpful evidence. Having managed both systems, I can confirm that the two processes are entirely different. Building control is the testing of a design against a set of standards (the approved documents). The elements that you are testing are all measurable against the standards: a beam will either support the load or it will not. I am aware that it is not a completely objective process, but it is infinitely more objective than planning. Dealing with applications for planning permission, in contrast, requires a far greater number of judgements to be made, often in a political environment involving consultation with the local community. Building control has little if any involvement with the community or politicians in its day-to-day operation.

The presumption from government seems to be that the processing and the determination of applications are separate and discrete. They are not

There are two fundamental challenges to making this pilot project work. Firstly, there is a considerable range of inputs needed for the application process (people, capabilities, systems, procedures and information) that have to be brought together successfully. Some of these elements are quite expensive (such as specialist IT systems) but the workload (typically 3,000 or more applications per year) disperses these costs and makes it economic. It is also quite complex and changes constantly. You have to get it right every time. If you mess up you can become the victim of the ombudsman or the Planning Court via a judicial review. Secondly, the presumption from government seems to be that the processing and the determination of applications are separate and discrete. They are not. I will look at each of these in more detail.

A development management service will have the following systems to process its workload successfully:

:: A planning application IT system (such as Idox or Northgate) to handle the workload, the production of documents, the provision of information via the council’s website, management controls etc.

:: An up-to-date database of properties in its area so it can identify which neighbours to notify about applications. Generally this is purchased from the Post Office and kept up to date through the post code allocation system.

:: A database of safeguarding information (eg notifiable installations, land liable to flooding, listed buildings etc) usually held on a GIS system and linked to the planning application IT system to identify statutory and other consultees.

:: The provision of the statutory register – usually now online.

It will have to provide the following services:

:: Dealing with questions from members of the public who have been notified about the application, are trying to understand it and are formulating any response that they may have.

:: Dealing with questions from politicians, such as local councillors and MPs.

:: Dealing with requests for more information or amendments from consultees, such as Natural England, Historic England, Environment Agency.

How can a DP do this, other than in close partnership with the LPA? All the current examples of outsourcing or externalisation are based on either a partnering approach (eg Terraquest) or the provision of the whole service (eg the Re or Urban Vision models provided by Capita). The notion that a DP can operate footloose across a number of councils carrying out the processing of applications cannot work without the particular LPA carrying most of the above functions. The DP can do little more that write up the report. If this is the case, how are the costs of the service going to be dispersed between the two providers: the council for validation, registration, communication and determination services and the DP for report writing?

All the elements are intrinsically linked and it’s all about placemaking

Turning now to whether you can deal with processing and determining as separate and discrete operations. As the leader of a development management team you manage your staff and the processes that are carried out to ensure successful delivery. It’s no different to any other team leader role, but a core planning principle set out in paragraph 17 of the NPPF is that planning should “not simply be about scrutiny, but instead be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which people live their lives”. For an individual application the process starts in the pre-application stage and continues right the way through to the granting of planning permission and beyond. All the elements are intrinsically linked and it’s all about placemaking.

So what does the government have in mind for this pilot? Who does the pre-application work, who negotiates the amendments to proposals, who deals with the statutory consultees and balances the often competing demands? This is a complex process that is not about ticking boxes, but about understanding each of the boxes and then weighing them up to arrive at a balanced decision. There are important, subtle nuances that come into play in terms of decision making, particularly where the application is controversial and the politics become a little strained. Who is responsible for the recommendation if the application is reported to a planning committee? What happens if the chief planner disagrees with the DP’s recommendation? Who presents the application to the committee? Who handles any complaints over the handling of the application and how is the process going to be resourced? Who pays the costs on appeal if a decision to refuse or a disputed condition is imposed at the recommendation of a DP? This is all one process, carefully managed by the leadership within the planning service. It is hard to see how a freelance, footloose DP can add value, unless they are in partnership with the LPA.

As chair of the Planning Officers Society, I am keen to see innovations in service provision that bring new resources into the planning system and improve its effectiveness. The society constantly promotes them. However, they need to add value and bring down costs, not add complexity, uncertainty and additional costs. Lewis told MPs that applicants will be able to “shop around for the services that best meet their needs”. Is that what planning is all about? According to the NPPF it is not. We want and promote a more efficient and effective planning system and are ready to work with government to make this and other initiatives a success, but the starting point must be to really understand the planning application service.



Readers' comments (11)

  • Does the local planning committee still have the right to reject the application under the new regime?

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    Oh dear: some people still don't seem to have realised that ultimately, and probably by 2020 before they get booted out, the Tories plan to do away with the planning process altogether, along with the whole idea of controls, restrictions, constraints, etc. It will be a kind of Ayn Rand approach to city-building. Or if you prefer, the Adolf Hitler approach to the administration of local government. The strong shall destroy the weak. Some people probably don't realise that this is what's happening. They just believe what Tory ministers say (in their usual way of being "economical with the truth")

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  • I for one and speaking from considerable experience wouldn't rely upon the Chair of the Planning Officers Society to give a fair and balance view on what is appropriate. With the planning system far from serving the best interests of society, society instead deserves the opportunity to shop around for a more suitable, helpful, honest and responsive service. At Planning Committee last night I was dumbfounded to hear the Planning Officers spouting blatant misrepresentations against an application the opposed, which were deep deep into the territory of fraudulence and with no real recourse for the aggrieved applicants.

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  • I for one look forward to this change as I believe not much will actually happen i.e I don't believe the doomsday scenario as presented.

    The planning system currently does not allow through innovative schemes easily but seems incapable to stop poorly designed large scale developments.

    So we will still get the dross under the new scheme but maybe we might also get the odd nice innovative building through without the heart troubles associated with most planning decisions.

    The public system of planning did have a fair and balanced approach and could work but this is now unclear and I have found individual decisions have varied too and fro in the current confusion so something needs to change.

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  • So when an unhappy objector or disappointed applicant gets the decision they didn't want, who picks up the bill for the judicial review or the appeal?

    If the Local Planning Authority didn't process the application they might even join in seeking to review decisions they don't like.

    The lawyers will love this!

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  • Although a litigious society, I assume one would need to demonstrate a damage of some kind.... a loss in real terms and I personally feel that there will be few legal challenges that are successful.

    Currently I assume most legality is from large developers taking the Councils to court. I.E The developers who have the money, as litigation is quite dear as we all know.

    I wonder how many individuals or community groups actually take planning applications before the courts. I'm sure there must be a record and it would be interesting to understand these numbers better.

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  • How many prefer using an Approved Inspector for Building Control and getting a responsive, practical, accessible and cost effective service rather than working with Council Building Control?

    If a parallel system were introduced for the Planning arena that would, in theory, surely be a benefit to this profession and others who have to put up with non-commercially aware, inaccessible planning authorities who often seem incapable of reaching an appropriate decision in a reasonable time frame.

    As one example I have just had a letter from one planning team who refused to give some basic advice that reversion from B2 to previous B8 was acceptable in an industrial and warehouse park. They had written to the Client several weeks ago saying that CoU was required.

    No officer was available for a 5 minute advisory phone call but directions were given by an obviously unqualified planning assistant that a paid pre-app should be lodged.

    This was then assessed as having insufficent information to enable any assessment.

    A full application for CoU was submitted and the validation team requested full plans, sections and elevations of a building where the only change is the use. No physical changes were to be made.

    After 8 weeks a letter was issued by the Council to the effect that the change was after all considered as permitted development and no application was actually required in the first place.

    However, as the authority had carried out a site visit, assessment, research and consultation to reach a decision that it was indeed PD, they had expended costs and therefore would not be returning the processing fee.

    The Client has taken my advice not to waste time arguing with the Council over £385, but is as annoyed as I am.

    I would support a more competitive planning system if it were to be properly considered and effectively implemented.


    After 32 years of submitting planning applications, and watching the planning process 'negatively improved' by successive governments I fear that the current intent to again 'improve' the planning system will fall far short of what is really needed, and leave a further broken system, and more disgruntled professionals.

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  • what a great idea, will ease the burden of volume of planning applications to local councils, speed up processing due to this and provide an alternative route. Great 2016 initiative :) Jane Blakeley, Jane Faulkner Architect RIBA (JFA), Jersey CI

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  • Surely the big difference between planning and building control is that approved inspectors decide themselves whether something is OK or not, but for planning it's the elected councillors for anything medium sized or contentious.

    Are councillors really going to trust the judgement of private planning consultants? I'd have thought they would have their suspicions raised that the applicant was trying to pull a fast one - that's certainly what people objecting to an application will say when putting pressure on members.

    Whatever we might think about some LA planning officers at least councillors will generally trust their integrity. I'd worry that going with a private consultant there'd be an increased risk of greater politicisation of the decision process which would be more likely to work in the favour of angry neighbours lobbying their councillors.

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  • Quelle suprise ! A government already dismantling the nhs, the education system would have no problem in removing the onerous planning system for their developers. It's all in their election manifesto which I suspect didn't get read by the voters who voted for them.

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