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Planning Reform proposed by new Coalition Government – will it actually work?

The new Government has just announced that it intends to move forward with the Planning Reforms set out in the Conservative Green Paper.

The Green Paper starts by blasting the current system, calling it broken. I admit that there are problems with the current planning system – not least the fact that many planning decisions are made by local councillors with little or no design knowledge or understanding of planning law but make decisions based not on what it says in their local plan but how many of their friends and neighbours asked them to refuse it.

Even schemes where the Planning Officer’s support the application are often refused due to the pressure of Nimbyism and Bananas (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Never Again) leading to lengthy and costly Appeals.

Here are some extracts from the Green Paper (you can download the whole thing from our website by clicking here):

“We will therefore expect local authorities to set out architectural and design standards in their local plans.” The Green Paper is 25 pages long and ‘Good Design’ is given all of five lines in the whole document ending with this quote. Planning isn’t all about Design but surely, surely it deserves more than a flippant passing comment.

Yet more costs are being heaped on the Pre-Application stages by the following “we will legislate to require that on projects above certain thresholds, before they can submit a planning application, developers involve the local community in collaborative design, as determined by the local planning authority.”

The Green Paper even goes on to suggest how this ‘collaborative design’ process can work: “A distinct and apparently successful methodology along these lines – called Enquiry by Design – has recently been piloted in the UK by the Prince’s Foundation. Enquiry by Design is a highly participative, cross-disciplinary process for defining detailed spatial plans, masterplans and regeneration frameworks for identified (usually large) sites.”

This doesn’t matter though because all you need to do is ensure that the neighbours don’t object and if you can bribe enough of the neighbours not to object you can get a planning permission…. how democratic is this? “we will legislate to provide that, if more than a small minority of residential neighbours in the immediate vicinity of a new development (of any type) raise any objection, then the conformity of the planning application with the local plan must be formally assessed by the local planning authority. …..

Of course, in the case of larger developments, those responsible for development will engage with these neighbours as part of the comprehensive and compulsory consultation process that precedes their planning application and this process alone may lead to unanimous local support (or at least the absence of local opposition). However we anticipate that in many cases developers will choose to avoid the need for formal assessment of the application, and hence speed up the planning process by reaching voluntary agreements to compensate nearby householders for the impact of the development on their amenity, in return for their support.”

But just in case you thought it’s ok, I’ll win on Appeal if you get a Refusal you get hit by this “we will be…. limiting appeals against local planning decisions; (such decisions will be challengeable by developers or local residents only if they involve abuse of process or failure to apply the local plan)”

What is also interesting to see, reading between the lines, is that there may be an option for local residents to Appeal against a successful planning application. If this is the case then this is going to stifle all development for several months – afterall, who in their right mind would press ahead with building work always knowing that a local resident might decide sometime in the next six months to Appeal against the granting of planning permission and may win that Appeal….

Personally, I think the most frightening naive comment is this “And, if we enable communities to find their own ways of overcoming the tensions between development and conservation, local people can become proponents rather than opponents of appropriate economic growth.”  Having worked as an Architect for nearly 20 years I have seen very few examples of where local people have ever really been in favour of change, particularly where that change involves a developer building something with the aim of making some sort of profit!

Having said all this, there are some positive things in the Green Paper:

“local authorities will no longer have affordable housing targets imposed upon them by regional bureaucrats. Instead they will be able to decide for themselves what level of affordable housing to provide to meet their local needs”

“In addition, we have indicated how individual communities will be able to bring forward small-scale development within their own area on a limited basis outside of the local planning process, by the creation of Local Housing Trusts. These Trusts will allow villages and towns to develop the local homes that local people want, provided there is strong community backing. The type and quantity of housing to be built will be for the community to decide, but we anticipate it could be a mixture of market housing for sale, affordable housing for rent, sheltered housing for elderly local residents, or low-cost starter homes for young local families struggling to get on the housing ladder. All non-market housing built by Local Housing Trusts will remain in local ownership in perpetuity, ensuring that future generations can benefit.”

“One of the best examples of individuals taking responsibility for housing is in self-build. Self-building can mean people literally building their own homes or hiring a contractor to build it for them once they have the land and the planning permission. It also often refers to groups of people coming together to pool their skills and build a number of houses collectively, neighbours literally building their community. Successful projects also can involve unemployed and unskilled people, young and old, who would otherwise struggle to find employment and housing. Self-built homes rely on being affordable and because they are the ultimate representation of having a stake in a home and a community, they are usually more environmentally friendly and built to higher design and quality standards. As part of our progressive Conservative vision for housing, self-built homes – like Local Housing Trusts – are a perfect embodiment of individuals and families taking responsibility where, under this Government, the State has sucked power out of communities. Giving more power back to local people and self-builders can increase the creation of successful communities and the revitalisation of existing areas across the country.”

I guess we will just have to wait and see how it all pans out….