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AJ September 2002 Practical planning advice # 71
by Brian Waters

Faster, fairer and more predictable

The shape of the planning system of the future began to come into focus with the publication at the end of July of the GovernmentÕs paper* responding to consultations on the planning Green paper. Wide-ranging, comprehensive changes to the planning system are claimed, but which build on the fundamentals of the system Òwhich have been built up over many years: the plan-led system; applying the principles of good regulation... and promoting and facilitating effective public participation.Ó
The paper acknowledges the need for proper resourcing. The Government wants to promote a culture change in planning: ÒToo often the culture of planning is reactive and defensive. We want a culture which promotes planning as a positive tool.Ó We are promised a comprehensive programme of change Ð a major programme of action which is prioritised and scheduled; early legislation and new regulations and a programme for revising and updating national policy guidance.
The promises are hard to argue with, nor the need for them; architects will have to stay on top of the changes at least at the procedural level and in advising clients of their implications. Key points to watch out for: A statutory purpose for planning is to be introduced Òsubject to ensuring that this is done in a way that does not create additional complications for the way the system operatesÓ.
Headlined in the press as a ÔretreatÕ, the Green PaperÕs suggested approval of major projects by Parliament has been replaced by an intention to replace PPGs with national policy statements (PPSs) which will be Òmore concise and better focussed on implementation of policy objectivesÓ. These clear statements of national policy about the need for specific investment Òwill help reduce decision timesÓ, so national policy will remain to be determined at high level, aiming to avoid a repeat of the Heathrow Terminal 5 saga.
Much needed targets for decision times are to be introduced for the Secretary of StateÕs own called-in and recovered appeal decisions (about time too); more refined targets for the planning Inspectorate have already been announced. At regional and local level, clearer, more user-friendly strategic and detailed planning is promised. Another paper is on its way.
Regional planning guidance is to be replaced by a statutory regional spatial strategy which will be given the same weight as the local development plan. These will provide the strategic framework within which new Local Development Frameworks (LDFs) and Local Transport Plans can be prepared and to which they will be obliged to conform. Structure Plans remain to be abolished but counties retain a role in the preparation of strategic plans.
There will be a single tier of LDFs which will replace the present development plans. Districts will be allowed to work together to produce joint frameworks which will comprise: ¥ a core strategy Ð to include a statement of community involvement; ¥ a proposals section with map showing site-specific policies; ¥ area action plans for key areas of change or conservation. Local authorities will be obliged to provide a three-year project plan for their preparation. The process for consideration and adoption of plans is to be improved by abolishing the two-stage deposit process; promoting mediation over objections; time-tabling the inquiry process; giving inspectors more control over procedures so allowing written, round-table and hearing examinations with no right of formal advocacy or cross-examination and to make the inspectorÕs recommendations binding on the authority.
The right of objectors to be heard is to remain, though presumed to be on an informal basis. Inspectors will be looking at the soundness of the plan as a whole and will no longer be restricted to considering matters objected to. These proposals contain the makings of a more disciplined, predictable and hierarchical policy context for making planning applications, but what of the day-to-day business of making applications and seeking permissions? We are told that planning must deliver a higher quality service to its users, both local residents and the business community.
There are to be strengthened powers of compulsory purchase with better compensation; new business planning zones (BPZs); the introduction of a certified statement of development principles which might eventually replace outline planning permission if they prove to work; the validity of permissions is to reduce from five to three years, but subject to LPA discretion; the General Permitted Development Order is to be updated to make it more comprehensible; authorities will be allowed to refuse repeat applications where they have already refused a similar application and duplicate applications once Government is satisfied that Òsubstantive improvements are being made in dealing with planning applicationsÓ.
Controversial proposals to introduce tariffs in place of planning obligations (s106 agreements) have been dropped and new guidance is to be produced for a more streamlined system Òthat will enable the community to share in the benefits arising from developmentÓ. The immediate thrust of action remains to do something to improve development control performance.
Key decisions include targeting 90 per cent delegation of decisions to officers; adding a checklist of issues to application forms; introducing delivery contracts to match expectations of service delivery by authorities and applicants for large schemes once an application has been made. To make the appeal process more efficient, the authority and the Inspectorate will be given dual jurisdiction for non-determination cases, for a short period (two or three weeks). This should focus the authority on the case with the incentive of avoiding the work of fighting an appeal.
Applicants will also find they have only three months during which to appeal. Statutory consultees will face a statutory 21 day period in which to respond or lose the right and they will be encouraged to produce standing advice; they will not be given the right to charge applicants for their advice. For the consumer, Planning Aid is to be given financial assistance, permissions are to be required to have reasons attached and authorities will be obliged to give stakeholders the right to address planning committees. Since 1 July planning obligations and similar agreements have had to be published on the planning register. And finally, a review of enforcement is promised. Faster, fairer and more predictable, maybe; simpler Ð unlikely.

*ODPM: Sustainable Communities Ð delivering through planning 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