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AJ October 2002 Practical planning advice # 72
by Brian Waters

Planning reforms will put pressure on architects

Fast track changes are in the works for planning and these will make life more difficult, especially for all those architects who feel that planning is remote from what they do. The challenges will take several forms.
The most productive will be the testing of design skills in achieving successful high density housing and mixed-use schemes. John Prescott in his 18 July statement said he would intervene if councils failed to meet housing targets set out in regional planning guidance. This is his bid to reverse the current shortfall estimated to be 10,000 houses in just the last two years.
His threat of intervention is backed up by the minimum density standard of 30 units per hectare in PPG3 Housing. Expect to deal with reluctant local councils under NIMBY pressure from the voters, reluctant house builders too, so the role of architect as mediator between developer and planning authority will not be getting any easier. Prescott promised to accelerate proposals for new homes in Ashford, Thames Gateway, Milton Keynes and around Stansted.
He will also toughen green belt protection and establish a register of surplus, publicly owned brown land (an Urban Task Force demand). This lot especially when combined with the demand for higher density development will expand architectsÕ share of the housebuilding market. The document released with PrescottÕs statement* says: ÒAuthorities are now on notice that they will have to sharpen up their performanceÓ. He has found £350m to help them along over the next three years and has attached a bunch of carrots. The money will be allocated in tranches and tied to how they perform against Ôbest valueÕ targets.
Thus better performing councils will get the dosh, presumably leaving the others floundering. Knowing how effective a particular authority is will be even more significant for you and your client. Not as good as it may sound though since improved authorities may be able to charge higher fees and a current review is expected to allow them to charge for pre-application discussions (remember when you could get them?). Meanwhile expect even more councils to get up to tricks in order to manipulate statistics: especially the quick delegated refusal without consultation with the applicant trick practised by several London boroughs just now. Quick refusal followed by quick chat and an adjusted application given an equally quick permission Ð gosh two ticks in the Ôunder eight weeksÕ box.
But in reality, embarrassed architect, annoyed and puzzled client, extra paperwork and a decision in about 14 weeks, not eight. Other proposals in the Government statement will keep architects on their toes and open them to being liable to their clients if they miss deadlines or fail to advise their clients of them: the abolition of repeat applications when the first gets refused and is not appealed (see trick above); of Ôtwin trackingÕ, of outline applications and the reduction to three months of the period when an appeal may be lodged (not much given that it may take some weeks to prepare a proper grounds for appeal after having decided to do so). Despite the weight of objection to the proposition, permissions generally will have a shorter shelf life of three rather than five years too.
The carrots will be coming with sticks, not least the prospect of much tougher enforcement action mooted in a new consultation paper which will confound well established games: no more getting away with development (operations) after four years or after10 years for changes of use, and the prospect of criminalising breaches of planning law (ouch! if it is our poor advice at fault). There are some silver linings in prospect, though by no means yet guaranteed. CABE chief executive Jon Rouse welcomed the statement but expressed disappointment Òthat there is no specific mechanism in place to ensure new housing developments will create places where people want to live... CABE will be working with ODPM to ensure those quality standards are met.Ó
Implicit in the reforms, especially as they effect new housing, is better design quality, and while both planning policy statements and house builders mouth encouraging platitudes, it is how policies are implemented, how clients instruct their architects, and how skilfully the architects respond that really will matter.
Quantifying sustainability Adding to the burden of new demands being placed on applicants for substantial developments is the notion of sustainability made manifest. Already sub-industries have quickly grown up to produce EIAs (environmental impact assessments) and TISs (transport impact statements) and so forth, but on two of my recent jobs a sustainability assessment and a sustainability statement have been demanded. The assessment has arisen out of a policy in Ealing.
The project: a replacement of an obsolete office block with a mixed hotel, retail and housing scheme. ÔThe economic sustainability of demolition versus conversion will have to be demonstratedÕ. The statement is being sought (by Greenwich) as a last-minute demand as an item in a ÔSection 106 AgreementÕ which, if it is to be more than platitudinous, would require construction details and evaluation of alternative energy sources and so forth for its financial feasibility to be established. Some things may better be left to the (admittedly imperfect) judgement of the market.
Anyone for planning permissions in eight weeks?

*ODPM: Sustainable Communities delivering through planning
**ODPM Review of the planning enforcement system in England pub. 27 September 2002 both from www.planning.odpm.gov.uk/consult/greenpap/scdtp/index.htm

Brian Waters is principal of The Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, brian@bwcp.co.uk/ www.bwcp.co.uk