Monday, 19 November 2012

The Playing Fields Of Eton: Croquet, Polo & Planner-Bashing


According to the Eton College website, the sporting activities offered to students include: beagling, croquet, fencing, polo, and the 'Wall Game' (no idea...). Planner-bashing is not advertised, but it's not hard to imagine Messers Cameron and Osborne being schooled in it's ancient arts there as well.
 
The school analogy also extends to imagining a bully seeking a veneer of strength by picking out a soft target. Certainly in a climate of anaemic economic recovery, it is easy to point the finger at the planning system.
 
With the ink still drying on the NPPF, the Growth & Infrastructure Bill was introduced to parliament last month and is due to be fast-tracked on to the statute books by April 2013. The usual rhetorical flourishes apply (“helping the country compete on the global stage”, "cutting excessive red tape”,etc).
 
Picking up on the idea that there are thousands of jobs locked in Town Hall filing cabinets, the Bill seeks to reduce delays in the planning system by allowing applicants to bypass an under-performing LPA and have the Secretary of State determine an application within a guaranteed 12 month.
 
The so-called “special measures provisions” of the Bill are to apply where a LPA is“designated” by the Secretary of State. The indicators used to assess under-performance have yet to be finalised, but the Bill's Impact Assessment uses:
 
·         Timeliness - the average number of major applications decided within 13 weeks, assessed over a two year period; or
·         Proportion of major decisions overturned - defined as the number of appeals involving major development that are lost as a percentage of all major decisions made (again assessed over a two year period).
 
The precise benchmarks for designating authorities as ‘poor performing’ will be subject to consultation, but the Impact Assessment assumes that the timeliness measure is less than 30% and the proportion of major decisions overturned is greater than 20%.
 
So how great a problem is under-performance by LPAs? The system and the managers of it are by no means perfect, but from the rhetoric and the perceived need for legislation it is not hard to imagine a lay person gathering the impression that most planning departments are basket cases.
 
Analysis by Planning of official data showing Councils’ performance on deciding major applicationson time over a two-year period has shown that no major applications would qualify for submission to PINS based on LPAs having a poor appeals record as no council has more than 20% of its major decisions overturned at appeal. Haringey, the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Torbay, Hounslow, Barking &Dagenham, and Cambridge performed below the 30% timeliness threshold.
 
The 'special provisions', therefore, would apply to only 1.6% of the LPAs in England and Wales. Notwithstanding the Government's stated committed to localism and a simplification of the planning system, does the problem of under-performing LPAs really need parliamentary time and legislation to solve it? Does the Secretary of State really need to designate, no doubt with much fanfare, an under-performing LPA? Might it not be more appropriate for the Government's Chief Planner to offer discreet, direct support for those LPAs that clearly need assistance?
 
These questions are not difficult to answer, but who will stand up for the planning system and make our Eton bullies listen?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The False Economy Of Scrapping Pre-Apps

It is not uncommon now, indeed it is perhaps more common than not, for LPAs to charge for pre-planning application discussions (pre-apps). The justification being, perfectly legitimate, that pre-apps divert valuable officer time from the determination of planning applications and that that time needs to be compensated for.
 
For the first time recently though I have heard that one Greater Manchester authority has actually scrapped pre-apps altogether, forbidding officers to engage in discussions about any site that is not the subject of an application. Whilst this authority has seen it's number of officers dwindle and no doubt views this approach as making best use of it's resources, I cannot help but wonder whether this does actually represent a false economy.
 
There are perhaps two implications of a LPA not engaging with prospective developers or promoters at the pre-application stage. Firstly, developers or promoters that are risk-averse (and they are certainly more common than not) may err on the side of caution if critical policy information (planning gain contributions, for example) cannot be gathered or if, more fundamentally, the reluctance on the part of the LPA is interpreted as a sign that the LPA is resistant to development. The risk of this is that that developer or promoter invests their time and money in another opportunity in another borough.
 
If the developer or promoter does though seek to bring a scheme forward without a framework for pre-application discussions then the only avenue available to engage with the LPA is to put an application in.
 
The same principles, of course, apply as much to householder development as they do to commercial development.
 
A planning application that has not been the subject of constructive pre-apps is extremely likely to raise issues that cannot be determined within the target date and then, as a result, it is extremely likely that a LPA will invite the applicant to withdraw that application for fear of it going beyond it's target date.
 
I would suggest that were such a scenario to be the result of a deliberate attempt to save time by abandoning pre-apps then that would represent a false economy because a proposal that could have been dealt with by a single planning application will end up being dealt with by two.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The First Post!

I've been tweeting planning news for a little while (@samuel_stafford), but have found that there is so much going on that it's difficult to condense news into 140 characters!

I'm going to use this blog to provide more information on planning news and also take the opportunity to include some thoughts and opinions as well.