24 January 2002 A J [see Editorial below]
BY BRIAN WATERS
The government's consultation website (http: //www. planning. dtlr. gov.uk/consult/greenpap/form. htm) asks questions such as: 'The Green Paper contains a number of proposals aimed at making the planning system faster, simpler and more effective. Do you agree with them?' It then lists: masterplanning larger developments, business planning zones, preventing twin tracking and repeated applications, and so forth, and provides space for comments under each question.
In its general response, the Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) says it 'feels the Green Paper fails to appreciate the practicalities of development control, and much more detail/flexibility will be necessary to make the new system work'. A particular concern is the suggested prevention of repeated applications.
While the new system will allow parallel consideration by the inspectorate along with the local planning authority, which the ACA feels to be an improvement on the present system (where the LPA loses jurisdiction unless there is a parallel duplicate application), the Green Paper's suggestion seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.
One of the great strengths of the speeded-up appeal system is that the inspector's decision letter often sets out unambiguous guidelines for what the inspector deems to be an acceptable development, and even where he might be issuing a refusal. It therefore follows that a new application amending the original in a way which officers and applicant agree is a correct interpretation of the inspector's wishes, is almost bound to be granted consent, however reluctantly, by the planning authority.
The elimination of repeat applications would endanger this entirely sensible and productive procedure. Invisible frameworks How the transition to the new system will work in practice is of greatest practical concern.We are told that the plan-led system will continue but that the present development plans are to be abolished.
The plans which in future will lead development - to be called Local Development Frameworks - do not yet exist. In any case, they are not intended to provide much more than general principles or objectives combined with master plans for specified and limited locations. It seems unlikely that the new frameworks will be in place for quite some time and that the to-be-abolished development plans will linger on while falling even more out of date than they are at present.
An inspector presented with such circumstances is bound to put considerable weight on the old development plans in the absence of anything else. For this reason, the ACA suggests that all current plans must cease to have effect within, say, two years of the enactment of the new system, 'otherwise there is a danger that there will be a vacuum with greater uncertainty than exists at present.
The imposition of a fixed deadline will ensure that proper resources are allocated to put the local development framework system in place'. Another question: 'We propose the local development frameworks should include community-based action plans. Do you agree?' While agreeing with this proposition, the ACA comments: 'Such communitybased action plans must be allowed to neutralise ad hoc local protest groups.'
The department also asks: 'We are proposing to speed up the planning system and set new targets for local authorities and central government for dealing with applications and appeals. Do you agree?' The ACA's agreement on this question is qualified by the need for the current statutory eight-week decision deadline remaining in place, 'allowing the appeal process to commence if a decision is not made. By suggesting that the inspectorate takes over LPA files (say six weeks after an appeal has been lodged), a useful period of limbo is created during which concentrated negotiations with the LPA can take place.' No win, no fee There is also concern about the suggestion that new performance standards be imposed for statutory consultees who will be allowed to charge fees for consultation 'to help improve their performance'.
While the ACA goes along with the principle, it says that the fee should be returnable if the deadline for a decision is not met; a deemed approval allowed if there is no response within the allotted time. It is also concerned that the list of statutory consultees may be impractical without more specific guidelines. For example: 'HSE and building regulation compliance is totally impractical and unnecessary at planning application stage. Consultations must be material to planning considerations, ' it says.
Late in January, the final daughter document of the Green Paper was issued. This deals with possible changes to the Use Classes Order which dates from 1987. Based on commissioned research, this discusses a number of options for change. The two most controversial suggestions are the re-introduction of a distinction between light industrial and office uses, and a merger for smaller units into one A Class for the present A1, A2 and A3 uses so allowing, for example, a change from a bank to a wine bar without the need for express consent.
For further details call 0870 122 6236.
Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555, e-mail: brian@bwcp. co. uk, www. bwcp. co. uk
Architect's Journal 28/02/2002 Isabel Allen
The planning process is in desperate need of an overhaul - but is the long-awaited Green Paper going to help? On page 73, Brian Waters sets out ways the paper aims to speed up and simplify the system, along with the reservations from the Association of Consultant Architects (ACA).Broadly supportive, the ACA's concerns focus on operational issues and detail.
More fundamental criticism was voiced at this year's annual RIBA council club dinner by Theresa May, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. For May, the paper 'addresses the wrong question'by asking how the system could be speeded up, as opposed to 'how to restore integrity in the system and hence people's confidence in it'.
May criticised the current 'adversarial'system whereby residents become involved in the planning process at the point where they attempt to block a development. 'How much better', she argued, 'if there was more involvement of people up-front, so that discussions on what was needed locally and how it could be provided took place before decisions on a particular proposal.'
But only a tiny minority becomes involved in knee-jerk 'notin-my-backyard'protest that currently passes for pluralism.Time is precious, and most people have no desire to expend energy on local planning issues. They simply want to know that if they want to extend their house the planning application will get a speedy response, and that the bigger decisions are in safe hands.
This, in turn, is dependent on another of May's (rather more realistic) contentions - that local authority planning departments ought to be better-equipped to act efficiently and to make 'proper judgements'about 'quality issues'. It would take an increase in funding, and a shift in emphasis, to prioritise design expertise. But we might just find that spurious - but politically expedient - babble about community participation becomes redundant, as the public becomes aware that planning departments can be trusted to do their job.
The Green Paper is out for consultation until the 18 March. Register your view on www.planning.dtlr.gov.uk/consult/greenpap/form.htm