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The Planning Bill trailer

The Planning Bill trailer: a practitioner’s point of view

Last summer saw what was hailed, by some, as the most radical revision to the planning system proposed by central government for decades. Almost a year on, Kate Wood – a chartered town planner with over 25 years’ planning practice – looks beyond those initial headlines in considering some of the main issues that would make the planning system deliver.

The Planning for the Future White Paper was published almost a year ago (August 2020). In commenting on the Queen’s Speech in May – in which the forthcoming Planning Bill was the centrepiece of the script and the news coverage – we pointed to a missed opportunity to unlock the current planning system.

In the opinion of many seasoned planning professionals, particularly those of us in commercial practice who also have extensive experience as local authority (LA) practitioners, the chief failure of the current planning system is the lack of proper investment and resourcing of local planning authorities.

One of the main planks of what is proposed in the white paper is ‘faster planning permissions’. Yet it is not clear how this is to be achieved other than, in addition to a replacement levy for Section 106 (S106) and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), that there will be digitised processes. In many planning authorities digitised application processes are already in place anyway.

Faster planning permissions are, fundamentally, down to the way planning departments are resourced and managed. The white paper’s suggestion of a chief planner is a good one as this will promote culture change and credence.

Planning is, after all, a collaborative and iterative process not a tick-box exercise.

While planners are scarce, LA planning departments should be looking to invest in more support staff to carry out the admin intensive tasks to free up the qualified planners to practise their craft.

Many council planning departments take weeks to register an application.

If applications were assigned to planners on day one for validation (following initial listing of constraints and policies by admin) they would be able to have an immediate discussion with the applicant around any further requirements. Thereby establishing an early working relationship and being able to start to deal with an application as soon as it came in, rather than half way through the statutory determination period.

Meanwhile, admin staff can retrieve and deal with consultation responses, including chasing, write the factual sections of the officer’s report and request amended or additional information from applicants under the direction of the planning officer.

Another plank of the proposed bill as it stands is ‘more emphasis on design’. This is already a current feature of the system through design guides. So would more of the same really achieve ‘better design’?

Surely the appropriate measure is for a local authority to employ skilled planners and urban designers who can interpret good design as appropriate to the locality of an application without recourse to a government checklist or one-size-fits-all standard?

An aspect of the planning white paper that grabbed the headlines is ‘more development by small builders’. We would argue that a more flexible approach to zoning and land allocation would facilitate this.

Many local plans are not open to such flexibility, drawing lines around villages beyond which development is not permitted. Better plans have policies that allow for small scale growth at the edges of villages by defining which character of site is appropriate to develop.

The emphasis on the community benefits from tens of houses than a small scheme of two or three houses also pre-loads the system against development by small developers.

Flexible zoning is also an argument that carries through to, surely, what is one of the biggest challenges of the post-pandemic economy: the changing nature of the high street.

Local authorities should – and could already – be addressing this issue now. They need to look to remove policies from their ongoing local plans which restrict certain parts of town centres to certain uses, eg ‘principle shopping frontages’.

The market should be allowed to evolve town centres for new uses and not be artificially constrained by planning uses defined at local authority level.

This will then have an effect on prices and/or vacancy levels. That’s something on which investors and agency professionals have the inside track.

We planners should defer more to their knowledge and experience to ensure high streets have sense of vitality, albeit that such vitality may be different to previous experience, and towards more diverse ‘quarters’ where activities may cluster.

And this respect for peer professionals brings us back to the main thrust of the argument when it comes to critiquing any Planning Bill which follows the policy tenets if the white paper: the concentration on regulation as opposed to valuing and resourcing the skills of planners.

Not until the planning system and the vital role it plays in the public realm is appreciated and financed at local authority statutory level will the planning system be unlocked to the benefit of all interested parties and communities alike.

For more information about Eddisons’ planning services, contact Kate Wood in the Peterborough office, [email protected]