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A bit more “think” in the think-tank please


By Steve Quartermain, Senior Associate

Everybody wants to reform the Planning system.

It is Broken (no its not)

It’s too complex (it deals with complex things)

It’s too slow (but how fast is “fast”)

It doesn’t look far enough ahead (the NPPF makes this difficult if you want to pass the soundness test)

Ah well; over the years successive governments have had a crack at trying to get the planning system to work “better”, without always being very clear what “better “actually means.

Is faster better; not if it means more refusals; is cheaper better; not if the service is poor and there are not resources to do the job

Is less regulation better; not if you are housed in a converted office block some way out of town

How do Local Planning Authorities rise to the challenge of delivering a great service; with great outcomes when their local ambition, such as curating their high streets is undermined by “new thinking” such as the Class E with PD rights to convert to other uses??

You might ask yourself, where do all these ideas and initiatives originate from? And the answer is quite often they originate from outside bodies, policy think tanks of varied nature, who consider they know a good idea when they see one. And to be honest, many a good idea has emerged from such sources…just not always in relation to planning!

One example is “street votes”. The latest suggestion to be considered by the SoS as a “super idea” and originating like so many reform ideas in the past, from such a think tank.

Now leaving aside the fact that I might argue that this particular think tank has not paid enough attention to Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDO’s)which I might suggest already do this, the way this is being promoted, stresses, not so much the planning issues and community engagement that NDOS deliver, but the potential financial gain to the homeowners. It is argued that they can look forward to a windfall profit IF they agree to knock their house down, rebuild a mansion block terrace with three times the accommodation, deduct the build costs (one of the new units?) and hey presto the rest is yours and you are half a million richer.

Now whatever happened to great placemaking and planning; thinking ahead to ensure that new development could be serviced/ adequately drainage; could access schools, doctors, open space; that people would help shape their environment by engaging in the development of design codes.

If only those who currently enjoy the benefit of (mortgage free?) ownership can do this, it is not quite the levelling up some might have imagined. Let alone not explaining how the tax office would view this capital gain, where do you live while the work takes place (a year?? ) how the usual planning considerations are weighed in the balance; overlooking, overshadowing, parking, refuse collection etc etc. Perhaps this is all in the detail to follow……

In all reforms it is good practice to ask yourself a simple question; “how does this work?”

So often ideas are generated by those will little or no experience of actually working in the planning system. Now as I said above, that doesn’t mean that some of these ideas are not without merit. On the contrary, there are always opportunities to challenge the way things work and an outsider’s perspective can be critical in that process. But beware the well-intentioned voice, which has not considered, or cannot know the consequences of “the new idea.”

As within the fast yellowing pages of the last White paper, there are new ideas that have merit and should be explored more, but you sometimes need a bit more “think“ in the think tank and those who ultimately decide might want to ask the users of the planning system; the elected members, the planners, the consultants, the developers/landowners and the local communities whether this makes things “better “ or whether it actually makes things worse. And this means meaningful engagement, not just “votes”

The bright thinkers often move on to new policy areas and are not the ones still sitting round the table trying to implement new reforms when they are implemented. It is certainly unlikely that they will try and get permission for some new development using the new planning system they co-created.

Perhaps DLUCH needs to revisit the value of a truly independent sounding board to feedback into their policy thinking. An independent group including practitioners wrote an early version of the NPPF; an independent group of practitioners wrote a review of local plans; an independent group of practitioners reviewed all the guidance.

And whilst it is good practice to avoid the views of the vested interest, more input from the front line rather, (or at least as well as) the usual suspects, who have never written a plan or determined an application themselves, would surely be a good thing. This approach might help us move forward more quickly and perhaps this sort of thinking would drive a more sustainable change to the planning system …. which might not need legislation and might even withstand any more bright ideas for a year or so….

So less ink and more think please; Here’s hoping.

A bit more “think” in the think-tank please