By Helen Tilton, Director – Cratus Bristol
On the 19th October Cratus’ CEO, Nick Kilby, was delighted to host a challenging discussion on the ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper, with two people who are truly able to get to the heart of the matter.
Both eminent leaders in their respective professions, Christopher Katkowski QC of Landmark Chambers, one of the six members of the Government’s Task Force, joined former Government Chief Planner and recently appointed Cratus Associate, Steve Quartermain CBE, to ‘hold a mirror up’ to the White Paper, unpacking and exploring the thorny question of just “how does it work”?!
On engagement and democracy…
The session opened with the widely posed question of whether the proposed changes could create an undemocratic process, not a more democratic one? In short, who is going to get involved, when are they going to get involved and what are they going to get involved about?
This was a recurring theme – timescales and practicalities were very much the order of the day.
It was confirmed from the outset the Task Force had been clear that the new system should welcome people much more into the evolution of local plans. In this regard it was felt that there are a lot of hopes being pinned on a digital system to support communities being involved as widely as possible in shaping plans and making the material more accessible, readily digestible and easy to use.
It was pointed out that much of the detail around ‘resetting’ the planning system is not set out in the White Paper, and there is much still to be done; but the details need not be complicated.
The great ambition of the White Paper has been generally applauded, but the point was made that with plan-making being time consuming and resource-hungry, how and when people can input is important. There is much to be done in 18-months, and digital engagement doesn’t remove the need for ‘boots on the ground’. In response, the point was made that if the evidence base is genuinely proportionate and if there is significant streamlining coupled with clear focus on the three proposed areas [Growth, Renewal, Protection], then the proposed timescales would be achievable.
However, the ability for consultation, re-consultation and checking through the whole process was nevertheless envisaged as being needed in some form.
This raised a further question, of whether the mechanics of running the consultation process could be set out in statute, to which the response was that national policy and guidance, not legislation, is likely to be the appropriate mechanism.
The question was raised about the level of information that is (or is not) available at the point at which the local plan ‘starting gun’ goes off.
What are people being consulted on when it isn’t yet clear what is intended regarding capacity and quantum? It seemed that the process was envisaged as being less of an ‘issues and options’ style first stage, but something much more open; a call for sites to be put into the three areas, and a means of seeking peoples’ ideas and thoughts.
The ‘heavy lifting’ in terms of debate is unsurprisingly anticipated to be around the Growth and Renewal areas.
This prompted the question of whether these sites will in effect be ‘called for’, and if so, is the timetable realistic? In that regard it was felt that the outline consents envisaged would be very outline indeed with few ‘fixes’/parameters. This means that there would naturally be debate on sites and the details at Examination.
It was also noted that this ‘very outline’ approach had already raised questions about whether this would be a sound enough basis to raise finance – a point that is to be thought about carefully.
On environmental assessment…
On the question of how a ‘very outline’ process is achievable when Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment are required, the answer seemed to be clear, that these procedures have to be significantly reformed so that environmental choices are more straightforward, and easier to access and clear for non-experts. However, it is erroneous to assume that this means brushing important environmental matters under the carpet – it is quite the opposite.
On housing numbers, and the Duty to Co-operate…
The conversation turned to how the Government decides what the housing figures will be; a ‘policy-on’ number devised by ‘some process’ still to be determined, taking into account constraints. The question here was that, whilst constraints such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) will be obvious, how will genuine urban capacity be factored in? This requires a process of engagement involving local discussion and local understanding.
The response was that the only real clues in the White Paper are around the potential for strategic redistribution of the numbers at Mayoral level. It was suggested that there would need to be a mediated process in place (examples of mediation mentioned were at County or Mayoral level – but certainly not a return to the old days of regional assemblies and strategies) allowing these matters to be heard before Government officially hands down the numbers, and that this would need to be a process over a number of weeks rather than months.
This would give authorities the chance to reach agreement on what the housing distribution / redistribution might be, in what was described as a ‘Duty to Co-operate but with a plus’, with the ‘plus’ being the default of the central Government numbers. This mediation would all have to be undertaken before the ‘starting gun’ on the local plan process.
This prompted the question of whether every local plan in the country would therefore have a shared start date? It was envisaged that a lot of plans would indeed be moving forward at the same time, but with a period of grace for recent local plan adopters, and also bearing in mind the need to incentivise plans already underway, to continue. It was suggested that it is realistic to say that by 2024 there needs to be a plan in place everywhere, but with the caveat that legislative changes would have to get underway next year.
On the role of Councillors…
Nick Kilby commented that, if the engagement process is being reduced towards the back-end of the planning process, then we must have absolute buy-in from the community at the start, and so the new system requires format and shape such that people can trust it. Local councillors have to be able to provide the leadership. The view in response was that local plans will become more meaningful, and should remain a plan ‘of the Council’ (including Councillors).
Nick commented that if we are successful in delivering outstanding engagement, what is the role of the public and councillors in planning applications? In response the example of Renewal areas was given, where planning permission would still be required, but with a ‘leg up’ as set out in the plan in terms of the agreed uses. If an application fits with the plan, Officers could make the decision, but where not, it could be made by Councillors. This would mean that the most controversial decisions would still rest with elected Members.
On design quality and the role of Neighbourhood Plans…
As there is a lot of emphasis on design codes and pattern books in the Paper, it was felt that some of this could be encapsulated in Permitted Development Rights established in a Neighbourhood Plan (locally determined). However, someone would still have to confirm what high quality design means in an area, not forgetting that this could include things like space standards and open space.
In pressing further into the likely role of Neighbourhood Plans, it was asked how you keep communities engaged, given so much would be ‘handed down’ from above? Further, how does the Local Planning Authority coordinate the timing of all that?
In response it was suggested that one idea is that Neighbourhood Plans would have a clear role in terms of standards and ideas about how development would look, and so be more ‘focused’ than they are now.
On timings, it was felt that a realistic view is that local plans come forward in the statutory timescale and that the design codes and so forth could come after. This point seemed to finally lead to an agreement that it is indeed very ambitious for everything in the Paper to be put in place in the timescale suggested and that it perhaps ought to be a staged process.
On Judicial Review…
The response to this matter was straightforward; simply, that if you write the rules and policy clearly enough as envisaged by the Paper then there should be less need to go to the courts and less ‘drive’ for Judicial Review. This seemed to reconfirm the point about the whole process needing to be open and transparent.
And finally, on “Why aren’t we amending the existing planning system to work better?!”
The closing remarks focused on why the existing planning system can’t be amended to work better, and whether this idea is even still ‘on the table’?
Whilst it was acknowledged that some of the proposed ideas could be addressed by amendment, that specifically on the local plan side of things this wouldn’t be achievable because the existing statutory information on plan-making is so complex. To achieve the ambition in the Paper therefore requires the ‘slate to be wiped clean’ and a new system built.
With thanks to Nick Kilby as host, Steve Quartermain as the question-master and interrogator, and to Christopher Katkowski for his insightful responses.
Cratus will be responding formally to the consultation, which closes at 11.45pm on 29th October 2020. Please get in touch with us if you would like to have a conversation.