Wednesday23 August 2017

This is what the planning system has become

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Planning should be the ‘heart and soul’ of every council, according to Brandon Lewis. The reality, says architect and developer Crispin Kelly, is more about passing the buck

I’ve been a developer for 33 years. Each year I reckon on making about 10 planning applications, some big, many small. So after more than 300 applications, I have begun to form a view about how the system works.

After periodic “root and branch” reform, the system tends to work considerably less well. Most practitioners are happier to work with a broken system they know than a system that isn’t yet recognised as broken. The conclusion is that planning is immensely complicated because it tries to triangulate very conflicting forces: the democratic will of the community, the private desires of the property owner, and the professional views of the plan makers.

There used to be a complaint that the system was too slow. Strict targets were introduced. The consequences were unintended. A typical scenario runs as follows: submit planning application to understaffed planning authority. Hear nothing for eight weeks. On the last day of the eight weeks, harassed planning officer rings up and says there is a choice. Either withdraw the application that day (because there are aspects of the application that are not clear or acceptable in their current form) or it will be refused. The application has been successfully dealt with in the statutory period.

But meeting the target has also wasted everyone’s time.

In the good old days, going to appeal was a big deal. The planning authority really wanted to avoid the extra work involved, and the applicant really wanted to avoid the delay. Now the appeal process has been adopted as an additional tool for the local authority.

It seems now to be used to deflect responsibility. A difficult application comes in with considerable local objections or particular political lobbying of members. Various woolly policies form the basis for the planning refusal. The officers explain that the applicant is fully expected to see the unfairness of the decision, and go to appeal. The officers are relaxed about this, as members want the planning inspector to take the heat for the final decision. The impact on the applicant is huge. A delay of between six and 12 months. And complete uncertainty as to what the inspector might decide.

Our experience of the system is often that planners are too busy (especially in London). The pre-application process seems to be used to raise fees as well as earn extra time to deal with planning matters. Discussion about planning seems to have been moved outside the traditional eight-week application process and into a very elastic pre-app. Difficult, subjective and unpopular decisions seem to be delegated to the appeal process.

We keep going because planning is where we can create value. The difficulties still aren’t big enough to stop us.



Readers' comments (13)

  • Further to this, the follow-on result is that Appeal Inspectors are now too overburdened and understaffed. Accordingly, they are now parroting whatever the Planning Officers had claimed verbatim. I therefore had an Appeal dismissed this year where the Inspector unmistakably hadn't even read our Appeal Statement and had based his decision on a High Court decision which had been superseded by Parliament when it had revised the legislation. Basically, the Inspector was too busy to know or even to check what the current legislation was and issued an erroneous decision as a result which we're now having to have our Parliamentary Ombudsmen investigate...

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  • This article pretty much sums up my experience of planning. I'm on to my third planning officer for the same site over the space of a year. First scheme refused on last day of 8 week process. Pre-app meeting to gain fees and not provide guidance. Its amazing the client keeps going. Next the 200k CIL charge for 7 new flats. There's not even any local politics involved, no objections, no councillor interest, ugly building being removed, should be a walk in.

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  • A great article that sums a great deal of (shared) experience of the planning system in a few paragraphs. More of these please.

    The poor architect is stuck in the middle of this shambles of a system. Add to that the common expectation (of clients) that architects have some sort of magic influence over planners. Nobody has a firm idea of the rules in this 'planning' game.

    I dread to think how much client's money has been wasted over the years through needless negotiations and appeals, not to mention all the schemes assigned to the 'planning graveyard' that should have been built but were refused with some vague reasoning.

    The language used in planning should have a dictionary of its own. Its pseudo-legal terminology is stuck in the dark ages.

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  • Another issue I have with planning is that there is not enough 'planning', in the real sense, at a local level.

    I have a son at a free school, currently in a temporary building on a temporary site (which is not even in the catchment area). The catchment area is almost entirely residential and in desperate need of a school, but the local council has neglected to earmark an appropriate site for decades. A permanent site (a semi-derelict house on a narrow, sloping site) was acquired, but local lobbying against this site, and countless public meetings, has now resulted in the council setting up an open consultation in the form of a web survey. Five potential sites have been chosen for 'discussion'. This is all before a design has been produced. I dread the prospect of the eventual planning application itself.

    The aim of a democratic process is fair enough, but the local council should be 'planning' these things positively rather than waiting for an application to come in as and when.

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  • Whether it is dealing with applications or allocating sites through the local plan, ultimately these issues are a matter of resources. Planning Departments are under staffed and also unable to pay enough to attract and retain the best quality staff. Until national politicians recognise the value of local government and what it does this situation is going to continue.

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  • Perhaps the reason planning departments are 'understaffed' is that they squander all their resources and their taxpayer funding in making obtuse refusals which they then go to extraordinary lengths to try and robustly and lengthily defend in their refusals appeal responses. If reason and common-sense prevailed, and planners pulled their heads out of their... self-serving policy manuals, then the system could quite easily run with proper communication quite smoothly in the reliable and predictable manner in which it should behave.

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  • It's Crispin's last comment that is so poignant: "We keep going because planning is where we can create value. The difficulties still aren’t big enough to stop us." The point here is perhaps that if the barriers were less then we would having the housing we need. We don't. If the planning system won't supply this most basic need, then it really is time to radically change the way it works. This is one issue the RIBA needs to keep at the top of its campaigning agenda.

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  • I am beginning to wonder what is the value of the planning system as a whole. It uses up vast amounts of resources (time and money) for both the tax payer and the applicant with very little benefit to the environment. I can understand controls over land use and restrictions on listed buildings but do we see better resulting standards of design than other western countries especially looking at the mundane rather than the architectural?

    It would be interesting if the whole system, apart from my reservations above, was scrapped for perhaps five years just to see what happens.

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  • Agree with this article in full, as this mirrors my own experience. I would add the planners often add greater emphasis to their perceived concerns based because they are forming a defense for the appeal.

    They may for example attack lots of areas although they only realy have issue with one or two areas as they assume everyone is a cut throat developer.

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  • I'm not surprised planning departments are under-staffed and under pressure. They are forced to deal with applications as and when they come in, with each one unique. It is potentially just as complex as the design process.

    The judgement, reasoning and language used by planners needs to be overhauled, stripped back and made totally transparent.

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