Of ports and porches: the planning white paper

Architects’ Journal for July 2007 [as delivered] [download as .pdf]

By Brian Waters

On the day of the publication of the planning white paper* at the end of May, The Times congratulated the makers of Mars bars for the perfect corporate apology: “We listened, we got it wrong, we are fixing it”. This would have been a more appropriate introduction than the all-pervading tone of complacency which was reinforced by Ruth Kelly’s assertion that “The planning system has improved significantly since 1997” on its launch.

It has taken the Government 10 years to get serious about implementing its 1997 paper ‘Modernising Planning’, the need for which is now all the greater. This time they seem to mean business. Unusually the paper has the imprint “H M Government” and an endorsement from four different departments.

In summary the measures set out in a White Paper are designed to:
• fast-track major infrastructure projects
• simplify the regime for local householder applications
• speed up appeals
• streamline the new local plan procedures
• improve the handling of major planning applications
• reduce the number of schemes “called in” by the Secretary of State
• strengthen policy on climate change
• change planning fees
• clarify national policy guidance
• introduce a new test to protect town centres

The establishment of an independent planning commission to decide on major
infrastructure projects has been widely reported and discussed. It is a slow response to the embarrassment of the long running Terminal 5 inquiry, a legalistic process which continued with the permission granted the same week for the Thames Gateway port – its planning application was made in 1998! The IPC is not new but a reformulation of the Planning Inquiries Commission legislated for in the original 1947 planning act [see section 101 of the 1990 Act]. This time the commission will have a wide-ranging remit covering energy, motorways, airports and other infrastructure and will actually issue the consent. Its success will depend on clear and decisive statements of government policy modelled on the recent airports white paper.

Many of the Barker Review’s recommendations are likely to be adopted. The plan making procedures for Framework Plans in the 2004 Act are to be streamlined but we face several years of policy confusion and obsolescence at the local level. A bundle of ‘daughter’ papers, which like the white paper are out for consultation. Architects should give them close attention for it is here that most of the specific changes which affect our clients and practice are to be found. For example a paper on fees includes a proposal to lift the £50,000 cap on planning application fees and to raise all but the smallest by 25% from April next year.

The paper is clearer on proposals to speed the appeals system. These make good sense though much has to change to make their aspirational targets credible, welcome though they are. For example householder appeals will have to be lodged within eight weeks and decided within a further eight weeks; inspectors will be able to decide them on the basis of the application where the local planning authority makes no submission. This means that a ‘deemed’ refusal taken eight weeks from submission and immediately appealed can be decided in little more than 16 weeks.
Major applications will have available the opportunity to negotiate ‘Planning
Performance Agreements’ which will establish a fixed timetable for their processing.

For these to be effective architects and their clients will have to ensure thorough preparation of their applications including pre-application consultations and both sides will have to ‘up’ their game.
To achieve such performance regularly, authorities will both have to be better
resourced and proposals for a significant expansion of permitted development rights will have to succeed. The rewriting of the General Permitted Development Order as it affects householder developments [porches, conservatories, extensions and basements] is to be based on impacts rather than measured volumes. The consultation paper and the related consultants’ report should be scrutinised by architects. They display a naivety which needs sorting before implementation.
Examples are not all convincing and are limited to a small range of cases; the
meaning of impacts needs more definition and, as I have written here before, the dimensional rules used should be limited to ‘deemed to satisfy’ guidance rather than cast as rigid criteria as in the present Order.
The new process will call for more professional advice for clients in designing
proposals to avoid unacceptable impacts and to make the judgement as to whether express permission is called for. There is the potential for lifting much of today’s burden from local development control departments and the Planning Inspectorate, releasing them to focus on major schemes and getting and keeping development plans up to date.
Section 9(e) discusses streamlining information requirements for all applications. It reminds that a new ‘standard’ national application form is to be introduced on 1st October along with local, non standard, information requirements which are expected greatly to exceed the present rules for validation under ‘regulation 3’. We are promised revised guidance ‘in the Summer’ on the new arrangements for determining whether an application is valid. “Later in 2007 we will start a further review with the objective of reducing information requirements”.
The ACA considers this to be unacceptable. Why confuse and elaborate the present system which is clear and, when respected, effective only then to initiate a review which will at the least have to undo these changes? Why not just suspend these unhelpful changes and carry out the review first?
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*‘Planning for a Sustainable Future’ [www.communities.gov.uk]

Brian Waters is a chartered architect and planning consultant: brian@bwcp.co.uk