Planning sinking under weight of paperwork

Copyright: David Lawson

Published: Property Week 2007

It is taken for granted that the planning system is a madhouse but the asylum now seems to have been taken over by lunatics. This is no sleight on much derided planning officers but more on their masters - ambitious ministers, NIMBY councillors and clueless Whitehall mandarins.

  Communities Minister Hazel Blears called latest reforms the means to ‘quicker and higher quality’ planning decisions but this is what the 2004 Act was meant to do.  Instead, it replaced relatively simple, if slow moving, development plans with local frameworks of half a dozen tomes covering everything from ‘community involvement’ to health, which are taking even longer to produce.

   Planning is sinking under a weight of paperwork – which is some achievement in the computer age. Progress is so slow that inspectors are twiddling their thumbs waiting for something to inspect. Only around 10% of new plans have hit target dates.

  Ministers have responded by allowing councils to extend policies past this year’s cut-off date but confusion reigns because not all are being rolled over, while some new ones are enforced in anticipation of approval.  The new Planning Reform Bill also proposes trimming complex paperwork, which could be too little and too late.

  It doesn’t help that some core strategies which met deadlines have been rejected because of ‘lack of understanding’ about what is required. This sent shock waves through the system, not just among planners who thought they had done all the hard work but others who have  been forced back to the drawing board with plans lined up for examination.

   It all throws a huge shadow over plans for thousands of new homes. Sites must be allocated and justified by factors such as supply, demand and infrastructure, but that can’t happen until core strategies are approved, says Ian Tant, joint senior partner of consultant Barton Willmore. 

    In the meantime vast amounts of time and money are being spent ‘front loading’ applications so that everything that might cause delay is approved before submission. ‘You have to be pro-active in the hope of reaching agreement rather than rely on appeals, which are expensive and time-consuming,’ says Jane Piper, a partner with consultant Terence O’Rourke.

   That involves finding sites likely to fit regional strategies and undetermined local frameworks, then working through details such as design and access agreements and potential S106 charges. Legions of consultants bombarded with work will be silently blessing Whitehall meddlers for underwriting their children’s school fees.

  But good preparation is no guarantee for success. Barton Willmore was shocked by rejection of a 135-page design plan for a new community at Filton, near Bristol, because of ‘lack of detail’. Revised plans have now gone through but Tant says this shows how much work is required even on outline applications.

    This still may not succeed where councils abhor development, a particular  problem in the South East where delays have increased over the last couple of years, says Piper. ‘Planners use the excuse that they are too busy to handle applications because they are tied up preparing new local plans,’ she says.

  Penalties if decisions are not made within tight time limits are deeply flawed. Councils refuse to accept applications considered ‘incomplete’ – a relatively easy task when so much information is now required. Even those allowed through to enable payment of grants necessary for extra staff to handle the workload are caught up in the chaos.  No time limits were set for negotiating S106 agreements, and anti-development councillors are taking advantage of this loophole to dig in their heels.  ‘It is almost as if they are holding on for an election or change of policy which means they don’t have to meet government housing targets,’ says Piper.

   If officials who drew up the system had some experience of planning at the coalface, they would have realised the potential problems.  But after the farrago of HIPs, development tax and renewable energy, it is not surprising to hear that such ignorance permeates Whitehall. It is a frightening thought that the same politicians and mandarins are now lining up the latest planning changes.     

Years of hard work developing realistic and workable development tariffs could be wasted by moves to introduce new charges, according to one of the country’s top planning consultants.    ‘The Government already has a contributions policy which is beginning to work well,’ says Bill Brisbane, managing partner of Roger Tym & Partners, which has negotiated several successful agreements with councils.

  Instead of ripping up the current system and raising a cloud of new uncertainties, ministers should build on what has been learned and demand consistent application across local councils.He also warned that developers cannot be expected to foot all bills. ‘Attempts to re-introduce some form of hypothecated tax on regional transport or affordable housing would likely squeeze a successfully evolving S106 regime beyond its capabilities,’ says Brisbane.