Thursday, October 13, 2005

Planning revolution or planning quagmire?

Radical changes to the process of planning were announced with great fanfares by New Labour over three years ago and they have been consistently watered down ever since. The Government initially said that it was going to speed up decision-making and overhaul the whole thing; it was billed as the Reform of the Planning System, introducing the most radical changes since 1947. The Nimby lobby were so anxious they complained that it was a sell-out to developers. They need not have worried. The System is still pretty much the same, except slower, more legalistic and bureaucratic than ever before.

The existing planning policy framework of regional policy guidance, structure plans and local plans has been swept away and replaced with something uncannily similar! Now we have a Regional spatial strategy’s, which sits above the remaining County Council planning functions, at the District or Unitary level the local plan is now called the Local Development Framework. This framework is a bunch of different documents which will include a core strategy, a document containing related site-specific housing and industrial allocations, one for development control policies and one for more short lived action plans. The idea is that these will be are loose-leaf folder so they can be taken in and out willy-nilly, thus being much faster and effective as a local planning process. Slight flaw in this logic, there will be consultation with everyone you can (or they can) think of at just about every stage. Of course local planning policies involve the same hard and unpopular decisions and raise the same controversial issues as ever. But with more public consultation and more stages in the process there is now even more scope for local politicians to prevaricate and professional objectors to object. No one that I have spoken to within the industry expects this new kind of local plan to create faster decisions or any more certainty that the old system. A crucial difference is that whereas the previous local plan system was a rolling programme every five years, the new system will just be permanently ongoing. Perhaps more importantly local authorities had the final say in their old local plans but now the government inspectors recommendations will be binding. So the net result is a centralisation of power at every point and at every level.

Meanwhile in the real world of trying to get planning permissions to build things the old local plans are frozen wherever they happen to be on the road to adoption and will steadily become more out of date and less relevant. Meanwhile government policy itself becomes the most important and influential factor. I think that the decreased influence and reduction in real power available to local authorities is being expressed by an increasing number of planning appeals. As local authorities refuse more and more proposals applicants almost routinely now just refer the decision to central government, in the form of the Independent Planning Inspectorate.

Local authority influence on real planning policy and what happens in their district is being reduced; as a result they seem to be becoming increasingly focused on the minutiae and petty details of new developments. Micromanagement in planning is becoming an art in itself, with armies of junior planning officers imposing their idea of taste on hapless homeowners and developers. English law used to be based on the principle that you are free to do what you are not specifically prohibited from doing, but this seems to be ebbing away.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s Office has just published more detail on some of the changes to the current planning system and they demonstrate quite well the way the wind is blowing in the world of planning.

An example is the limitation now placed on the number of refusals that can be issued before you're forced to appeal. In the past there was no limit to the number of refusals you could clock up on a site. But now if a similar proposal is refused twice within two years and no Appeal is lodged the local authority can ‘decline to determine’ any more similar applications. Although this sounds simple it could have big implications. If you try and negotiate an approval by making minor amendments (compromises) in order to satisfy the planners they can simply turn around and refuse to make a decision on the third application you submit. And there is no appeal against this other than via the courts.

Another change is to the length of time planning consent lasts for. Planning permissions have generally lasted five years, since the system was introduced in 1947. For no apparent reason this has now been reduced to three years. This means that outline planning applications will also now expire after three years if the reserved matters (detailed plans) are not agreed. The net result of this change is just to increase bureaucracy.

In an attempt to speed up the bureaucracy of planning another of the changes may do exactly the opposite. When a planning application is submitted various organisations are consulted, for example this might include the Environment Agency or English Heritage. They have always been under pressure to respond quickly, but now this has become a legal requirement within 21 days. But a response can be as simple as a standard holding objection or request for more information, it does not need to be an answer. So in the cause of meeting targets this new power will just slow the system down as more letters are sent, simply to meet the targets – rather than achieve a result.

To sum up, these changes just tinker with the existing system and make it more complicated and slower, good news for the consultants and unemployed planners but a bit of pain for everybody else!

Ken Dijksman is an independent self employed planning consultant with
extensive experience in both public and private practice. He may be contacted by email at

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