Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it can grow on houses

“The loudest voices we hear…” How planning for the future changes local engagement and democracy

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By Helen Tilton, Cratus Bristol Director

Experiences of the planning system can differ dramatically. 

For some, planning can at times feel unpredictable, difficult to engage with and understand.  But, as many a public and private sector planner will tell you, there are parts of the existing system that could be improved simply by resourcing local authority planning departments appropriately. 

‘Simply’ is of course anything but. Appropriate resourcing is more than a question of local government finances and increasing the number of ‘bums on seats’, and it is more than a question of skills development. It requires the holistic consideration of the empowerment of the next generation of planning officers.  

Planning for the Future tries to tackle some of these issues as if the existence of the consultation itself signals the beginning of an utopian liberation of local and combined authorities who, free from the supposed shackles of “burdensome assessments and negotiations”, will have time in abundance to focus on the development projects that really matter. This seems somewhat improbable, and in the current recession the talk of more fairly using the talents and passions of public sector planners through “some re-focusing of professional skills” is unlikely to be comforting to those working in Development Management. 

We have all been primed since before spring to look to this White Paper as delivering a seismic shift, something that fundamentally plays with how we create places, with all the future possibility that it brings in addressing challenges around social disparity, health, and other quality of life indicators.  

Arguably, however, the Paper only confers a promise of two things at this stage: first, the overhaul of the system in terms of the use of digital engagement; secondly, the use of design guidance and codes (everything else could come to pass but is even more heavily caveated with alternative options). Of the two, it is improved interactive open data that has the potential to benefit forward planning of all kinds. The call to improve digital technology and access to information doesn’t seem to be a matter of improving the planning process alone, but infers something far more fundamental in terms of improving local government service delivery as a whole, including supporting successful partnerships with the private sector.  

For this reason (among many others) it is genuinely important that those outside the planning and development industries engage with the current consultation. It may therefore seem somewhat odd that a paper that expressly seeks input from a broad range of people, looks to seek feedback in a narrow and non-inclusive way that is difficult for the general public to engage with.  The initial modest outrage from the development industry to the format and unwieldy nature of the consultation certainly suggests that those that are already engaged in the development world may end up inadvertently stating their support for better public engagement and the use of digital tools. 

Harnessing community input?

The methods and time required to deliver good quality public consultation, the need to demonstrate the reasonable prospect of infrastructure delivery, and the introduction of a new nationally-determined binding housing requirement, makes the 30-months for new Local Plans to be put in place sound both unreachable and top-down. It is no surprise that the consultation is causing concern in some quarters.

There is, however, no mistaking that this government means business. The changes are to involve “radically” and “profoundly” re-inventing the ambition, depth and breadth with which engagement with communities occurs as local authorities consult on local plans.  

The principle of making planning information easier to find and understand and making it appear in the places that discussions are happening, like digital groups and social networks, ought to give neighbourhoods and communities an earlier and more meaningful voice. It should also make it easier to access and understand information about specific planning proposals further down the line. Given there can be large time-lags between plan-making and delivery, communities will need to be kept informed, updated (and above all, involved).  

The stated logic behind removing consultation at the pre-planning/application stage is rather at odds with the ambition expressed regarding plan-making. There is reference to “streamline[ing]” of the opportunity for consultation on the grounds that consultation at application stage adds delay to the process and is focused on a small minority of voices. Of course, consultation done well is not like this, and the same digital reforms that are proposed for the plan-making stage could as easily be applied to the pre-application/application stage. 

Engaging – the how and when?

A missing link in the community engagement shift is the absence of recognition of locally elected representatives – the councillors who support the communities that are supposedly at the very heart of Planning for the Future. With this has come genuine fear of a loss of local democracy in favour of new procedures that could well result in government intervention.   

There are just two stages where “meaningful” public engagement is proposed:

  • Stage 1 [6 months]: the local planning authority “calls for” suggestions for areas under the three categories (i.e. Growth / Renewal /Protected), including comprehensive “best in class” ways of achieving public involvement at this plan-shaping stage for where development should go and what it should look like.
  • Stage 3 [6 weeks]: the local planning authority simultaneously submits the Plan to the Secretary of State for Examination and publicises the plan for the public to comment on. 

There is a suggestion that the plan-making authority and all those who submitted comments would have the right to be “heard” by the inspector, but in proposed alternative options this right could be removed (among other alternatives).  

In short, the Local Authority needs to very rapidly be in a position to fully enable engagement, and interested parties need to be ready to input at Stage 1, or they may lose the chance to have any substantive input at all. At the moment of course there are multiple alternative planning mechanisms being proposed along with a layer of design consultation (more on this below) and so in actual fact it is not at all clear what will be consulted upon, how, or when. 

What seems certain if the proposals proceed in the vein currently presented is that there will be a trend towards developers and investors having little option but to lobby at local plan stage in order to secure area allocations, and there may well be separate lobbying to secure evidence of a significant change in circumstances where this might necessitate a local plan review sooner than every 5 years (or the opposite, depending on what interests are at play). The timing of local plan reviews relative to local elections will also become more significant and perhaps particularly so in councils that elect by thirds.  

Councillors fear being presented with plans that they have little control over in terms of individual sites and with the knowledge that if plans aren’t agreed locally that top-down intervention will decide the matter for them. 

As actual planning decisions would be largely focused on resolving outstanding issues (as opposed to the principle of development) then where development was not locally wanted there would very likely be cases made around site-specific technical issues. 

There are however some positive ‘carrots’ being dangled that could encourage local support for development, such as around assisting SMEs, self-build, custom-build, and community-led housing, as well as the concept of giving local authorities greater powers to flexibly use Infrastructure Levy funding to support both existing communities as well as new communities. Perhaps this is an opportunity to bring technical officers, elected representatives, developers and communities together around a common purpose?

Design is key

We are told to “expect” design guidance and codes. As national guidance, the National Design Guide, National Model Design Code, and the revised Manual for Streets will have direct bearing on the design of new communities. But, to ensure that schemes reflect England’s diverse character as well as what is “provably popular” locally, it is also suggested that local guides and codes are prepared wherever possible. With the time constraints on plan-making being 30 months, might some local authorities be looking for the least painful (i.e. the quickest) option, whilst councillors and residents’ groups will be lobbying for design inclusion? Crucially, where locally-produced guides and codes are not in place, the national guidance would guide decisions on the form of development. 

“Provably popular” is an interesting concept that is not defined by the Paper, but that does seem to involve considering “empirical evidence” of what is popular and characteristic in a local area. It also appears that government wants to spread the use of Neighbourhood Plans particularly in towns and cities. If the Neighbourhood Plan process is being promoted, might there be a role for local referendums in proving what is locally popular in some cases, and if so, at what point in the process?

Lobbying around the design codes will be crucial, but complicated. Land promoters have traditionally been reluctant to put together design codes because it can reduce flexibility when selling. This is even more the case with “pattern books”. If the agreed pattern book does not match a housebuilders product, then they may not seek to purchase a site they would otherwise be interested in. How much flexibility will there be, and will this prove to be the way that councils get to turn down detailed planning applications? 

It’s [probably] not the end of planning as we know it

Whilst some are reading the proposals as the end of community and stakeholder engagement post local plan-making stage, this seems unlikely given the range of alternative options proposed (the following list is not exhaustive):

  • The focus on delegated decisions is balanced by the suggestion that government is still open to considering the most effective means for neighbours and other interested parties to address any issues of concern where the principle of development has been established leaving only detailed matters to be resolved.
  • The indication that new mechanisms proposed that refer to detailed planning permission might in reality be akin to a “reformed Reserved Matters process.”
  • Limiting automatic Permission in Principle to land identified for substantial development in local plans (Growth areas), with other areas of land being, as now, identified for different forms of development in ways determined by the local planning authority, taking into account policy in the National Planning Policy Framework and subject to the existing development management process.
  • Allowing local authorities a similar level of flexibility to set development management policies as under the current local plan system, with the exception that policies which duplicate the National Planning Policy Framework would not be allowed.
  • Various references to planning mechanisms that we are already familiar with in some form, including Local Development Orders, Neighbourhood Development Orders, or for exceptionally large sites such as a new town where there are often land assembly and planning challenges, a Development Consent Order, and reformed Development Corporations.
  • The suggestion that in Growth and Renewal areas it would still be possible for a proposal which is different to the plan to come forward (if, for example, local circumstances had changed suddenly, or an unanticipated opportunity arose), which would still require a specific planning application. 
  • In areas where development is restricted (Protected areas) any development proposals would come forward as now through planning applications being made to the local authority (except where they are subject to permitted development rights or development orders), and judged against policies set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.

Even on the tricky discussions around housing numbers (on which Cratus has recently commented) there are alternative options being proposed and they are anything but apolitical. This includes Mayors of combined authorities potentially overseeing the strategic distribution of the housing requirement in a way that alters the distribution of numbers.  

Sharing – the Duty to Co-operate and unitarisation 

The Duty to Co-operate test is proposed to be removed, although further consideration is to be given to the way in which strategic cross-boundary issues, such as major infrastructure or strategic sites, can be adequately planned for…including the scale at which plans are best prepared in areas with significant strategic challenges.  Being able to share standardised digital data would certainly be one way of making a strategic map for England possible, which would make national infrastructure planning across administrative boundaries easier (increasingly important where major growth is proposed, such as within the Oxford-Cambridge Arc). What a way to re-introduce regional planning!?

The removal of the Duty in our view should be considered in the context of the unitarisation of councils and strategic planning. More on this to follow…!

 

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