Last minute haggling delays UK planning

Copyright: David Lawson – first published Property Week May 2007

A developer recently asked consultancy GKA to help guide through a planning application. That was no surprise after 20 years helping navigate the stormy waters of intransigent councils, angry protest groups and NIMBY neighbours. So why did chairman Gerald Knight refuse? Because plans were to be submitted the following week, he says.

  The real shock is that the request came from a major name. Novices and smaller operators may rely on ticking the right boxes to satisfy local plans and government regulations, but experienced ones should really know better. Planning is a hotbed of politics, prejudice and raw marketplace bartering. Handling that explosive mixture can’t be done at the last minute.  ‘Once an application is on the table, you have lost all control,’ says Knight. Proposals can’t easily be tweaked to take account of objections. 

  And with planners under pressure to make decisions within three months to qualify for grants, any reason to reject can be useful.  The mere fact that a developer has skimped on consultation is grounds for refusal under changes introduced last year. The problem is that talking to the public is deeply disturbing to many developers, who feel the more information they give, the greater the chance of generating objections. It also drags out timescales. The plethora of people, groups and regulators who must now be consulted has been blamed for permissions taking up to three times longer than a decade ago.

    Many developers will be hoping for a cull under moves to speed the system following the Barker Report. At first sight, they appear to have a case. ‘The statutory consultee list alone is epic,’ says the British Urban Regeneration Association [Bura]. ‘Communities have far greater expectations of consultation but can get hi-jacked by savvy (and sometimes non-representative) leaders.  Local media is rarely supportive.’

   Knight has little patience with calls to dismantle the system. In fact, he believes the solution lies in more consultation.  Limiting information leads to speculation, rumour and negativity that can blot out any later concessions.    Developers are their own worst enemy when they fail to iron out potential problems long before making an application. This cannot involve a surly ‘box ticking’ approach, but demands more sophisticated investigation, he says.  Political makeup and looming elections can be as critical as government rules, so councillors need sounding out to determine what they consider vote-catching.  Bringing in local groups can also prevent the spread of scaremongering.

  It all sounds much as you might expect from a consultant paid to arrange consultation, but Knight has an unlikely ally in Yolanda Barnes, more known for crunching data than smoothing ruffled feathers as research director at Savills. She recently had her first taste of confrontation at a planning inquiry and came away convinced that leaving the field to activists is a recipe for conflict. Contacting the ‘silent majority’ with the positive aspects of a development long before an application can galvanize support rather than spark dissent, she said.

  But the whole system of consultation needs rethinking, she told a discussion hosted by the Bura. Professionals should not be facing other professionals across a table. ‘We are in danger of confusing consultants with people who live in the real world,’ she said 

  Similar confusion is rife among developers that consultation can be left to the public’s official representatives – local councils themselves. But they, too, can be guilty of doing the bare minimum to publicise schemes.  Some can’t even carry out responsibilities for producing Statements of Community Involvement [SIC], which are the vital first stage to new local plans. Labour MP Paul Truswell attacked his own government in the Commons a few months ago, saying more than 50 SICs had been bounced back by the Planning Inspectorate because of basic procedural flaws.

Flaws in the System?

 Is planning grinding to a halt because of too much consultation?  Experts were divided at a recent debate organised by Bura.

"When the Greater London Authority was launched, there were 32 development plans: now there are more than 200 documents. People don’t know what they are being consulted about. Leaders should be willing to ignore short-term objections to pursue long-term aims, just as the GLA has done over social housing." - David Lunts, Executive Director, GLA.

 "Planning is too local. It should be more strategic. Presentation is bad. Set a positive tone. I talk nowadays not about concrete but how many trees will be planted." - Archie Robertson, Chief Executive, Highways Agency

"There are too many lawyers haggling over details. Statutory bodies are woefully under resourced, so it is almost impossible to be involved early." -  Clive Harridge, Past President, RTPI

"We are confusing professionals with the public. We need people based in the real world. More pre-plan consultation could favour development." - Yolande Barnes, Savills