UK real estate hopes for planning changes

Copyright: David Lawson - Property Week December 2001

Home page

Ian Coull is celebrating an early Christmas present this year from a most unlikely source. As director in charge of property and development at Sainsbury’s, he fights  powerful headwinds to push through around 1200 planning applications every year – almost 1% of the UK commercial total. Bureaucracy, delay and plain bloody-mindedness  make the whole process expensive and exhausting.   And almost every year that wind changes direction because of new government directives . But this time around Coull is looking forward to what he considers the biggest changes for 50 years.

     So what was the industry hoping to find when this present was unwrapped? Faster decisions and more consistent policies were top of the list. ‘Terminal Five is the best-known and perhaps worst example of delays which make us an international laughing stock. But I could quote many examples of much more mundane supermarkets taking several years,’ says Coull.

  Delays cost money – which has to be recouped from higher grocery prices or lower share values, hitting consumer and investor. And the indications are that this could be tackled following hints from as high as the Prime Minister and Chancellor and more direct promises by Secretary of State Stephen Byers and Planning Minister Lord Falconer that business should be given similar consideration to community involvement and green issues.

  If  Coull had to choose one change that will survive the inevitable furore over the Green Paper’s proposals it would be consistency. He wants the same treatment from planners whether in Cornwall or Cumbria, East Anglia or West London. A complete system of local plans would help, yet almost a decade after the deadline, 40 councils have yet to produce one.

  Chris Robson, head of property management at McDonald’s Property Group, has similar hopes that decision making will be accelerated by the reforms. ‘We open around 100 restaurants a year. For every week’s delay, that’s 100 weeks of lost sales,’ he says.

  But the changes must go further than improving efficiency. Planners should have greater awareness about the implications of their decisions, according to John Walker, chief executive of the British Urban Regeneration Association [BURA]. He wants economic benefits and costs of  development built into planning  decisions in the same way as environmental impact assessments.

  Some councils are excellent at appreciating how planning is integral to business success, says Robson. But even they can be restrained by time and money. The Chancellor may find it unpalatable, but to remove the drag on business, he will need to release more cash to overworked planning departments. Some councils are losing money on every application they handle and just cannot keep up, Royal Town Planning Institute secretary-general Robert Upton told a briefing by City lawyer Fenners before the Green Paper came out.

  ‘These reforms should not be just about method but resourcing,’ says Alan Froggatt, chief executive of Insignia Europe. ‘Morale in planning departments is at an all-time low because of inadequate staff levels.’

  Business could also help smooth this path: ‘We wouldn’t mind paying a bit extra to ensure that the appropriate level of resource is applied,’ says Coull. But the system would also benefit from hiving off  the 300,000 or so domestic applications a year for faster processing and cutting back on the complex preparation of development plans.  ‘We would all acknowledge the importance of public consultation but I hope the Green paper will point the way to accelerating the whole process,’ he said.

  One major bottleneck is the Secretary of State’s reserve powers, which can lead to delays after applications are called in. BURA is looking for regional and national  strategies to complement a simpler local planning system, which would mean fewer schemes disappearing into the recesses of Westminster.  Intervention by new layers of government like the Mayor of London remain a threat yet ironically, the capital could provide a  practical example of what reforms can achieve. Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, says she would like to see the capital’s spatial development strategy used as a prototype for the rest of the country. Planning was designed for a different world 50 years ago, she says. ‘It is highly legalistic, narrowly confined to land use, glacially slow and out of touch with reality. It meets the needs of neither communities nor business.’

  She would like to see local plans replaced by strategic guidance -  going even further than economic issues to include services such as health, education and transport. ‘Insular’ planning teams should be replaced by wider-ranging groups of experts covering issues such as health  Plans would be shorter and more inclusive, less tied to land use except for hot spots around neighbourhoods of major change.

  Whether ministers could stomach using the enemy within as a template for change remains debatable when disagreements remain over transport, which Gavron and the government see as the heart of ‘new planning’. But something must be done to unclog bottlenecks as the balance swings away from the car, according to Tom Higginson, town planning manager at Railtrack Property.

  Many developments now stand or fall on the prospect for a new line and the delays are just as frustrating as those generated by planning inquiries and government interference. The depressing thing is that this was supposed to have been cleared up by a less well-known reform almost a decade ago. The Transport Works Act moved discussions on rail projects out of Parliament, where they could become bogged down as MPs debated every detail, and into the hands of an inspectorate.

 ‘But it remains cumbersome,’ says Higginson. Plans to extend the east London line, for instance, spent only a couple of days at public hearings, but  sat for a year in Whitehall while ministers cogitated. He would like the Green paper to spark a further acceleration, otherwise the very development the government wants tied to public transport will be held up as investors drift away.

   Transport is also dragged down by the notorious system of planning gain payments, one of the areas in which the industry will be looking for change. ‘We are wholly in favour of making a contribution to the community when a planning approval significantly increases the value of a land holding,’ says Coull. But the current Section 106 system is exploited by some unscrupulous councils while others unused to dealing with major applications were missing opportunities.    Heavy hints that the Green Paper will make the system more transparent and consistent across the UK will be one of the most welcome reforms.

  The property industry is not without blemishes in contributing to the malaise infecting planning, says  Paul Syms, professor of land use at Sheffield Hallam University. A hard-hitting critique he wrote for the RICS Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out that many of the barriers to brownfield regeneration are internal ones. Developers should approach planners and local residents earlier to talk about plans. Occupiers should think more positively about contributing to regeneration. Professional bodies should educate occupiers about ways to eliminate contamination. Valuers should have the courage to mark down land to its real value rather than hanging on to obsolete book levels.

   But most people in the industry will be looking outwardly to the Green Paper for changes. Many could be disappointed that their pet reform has been buried, but success or failure may not depend on a checklist of details. ‘It’s a question of whether attitudes will change,.’ Says Andrew van der Meersch, chief executive of Stockley Park. ‘Can we get away from the attitude that you are presumed guilty rather than innocent? Can we move away from personalisation, where decisions are made or the whim of an individual?’

     This subjectivity has been made worse by recent moves aimed at directing development back into towns, says John Fenner, a leading planning solicitor who has campaigned to rationalise a system he deals with every day. Sequential testing, for instance, meant every decision hinges on the decision of individuals about whether a site is the ‘right’ one. There is no unified, overall set of rules, and local authorities take the words development control at face value rather than seeing themselves as facilitators.

   He points across the Channel, where transport planning led to a high-speed link long before we have managed to get a line into London, and integrates road and rail around nodes like Zurich airport. He blames lack of courage.  ‘So often, we sit frozen in the headlights of life, frightened of making mistakes,’ he said.

Sir Stuart Lipton

 The country has lost its way on town planning. ‘We have invented some of the most dismal places.’    This powerful message will have echoed through the minds of ministers as they prepared drafts of the planning Green paper. It is not the cry of some anti-capitalist revolutionary but straight from one of the establishment’s leading players. Sir Stuart Lipton  also has a foot firmly placed on both sides of the divide. He is not just the most charismatic developer of the late 20thncentury but chairman of CABE, the government’s planning conscience. He has CABE staff scattered throughout the Treasury and various ministries as advisers, so  Government proposals are likely to draw strongly on their views.

  And these are damning of a system that has struggled almost since it was established a half century ago. As if throwing out a challenge for the Green Paper, he said: ‘Is it going to be a radical overhaul of an archaic system or further tinkering at the edges? Can we rid ourselves of a planning system stuck in a time warp, peddling a reactive, pedantic and legalistic approach to people’s lives?’   Streamlining is essential: ‘It took Leeds striving to be a competitive European regional capital ten years to complete its last development plan.’

 Local plans should be more flexible and strategic – adopted more quickly and revised more often. A tier of administration should be removed by taking out structure plans. Regional plans should bring together transport, economic development and land-use planning.   ‘Reward quality with quicker permissions,’ he says, citing a system in Australia where fast-track approval is given to developers who match planners’ principles.

  But local authorities need the expertise to draw these up and make decisions on ‘best value’ audits, so they must be given the best advice and training. Higher fees could help pay for the added costs. ‘The private sector is willing to pay for a better and faster process.’   Efficiency could also be increased by one-stop shops covering all consents, including heritage issues – an important move for foreign organisations that cannot understand the UK system.

  Hive off major projects to Parliament, leaving the detail to public inquiries and give inspectors power to speed proceedings and ask ministers to make quick decisions.   Sir Stuart told a pre-Green Paper briefing organised by the RICS attended by ministers and Whitehall officials he was ‘hopeful of change’. By now he will know whether they had the courage to follow his advice.