Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Robson Planning Consultancy

Summary

The draft Framework wishes to remove excessive policy which is welcome but it could begin by simplifying—including the repeal of much unnecessary control of processes rather than adding further layers to the present cumbersome machine. The resultant policy framework would be much more robust and sustainable if this were done.

Simplification could also shorten timescales for Local Plan preparation to ensure plans were up to date and based on recent evidence. (In particular core strategies and site allocation stages should be amalgamated).

The emphasis of the draft National Planning Policy Framework wishes to make the default position yes. Yet it is still written with too much emphasis on government and local government control rather than genuine creative encouragement to the innovator, entrepreneur and placemaker.

The draft policy framework is too prescriptive in its planmaking with details of theoretical housing capacities and such mechanistic methodologies as SHLAAs and SHMAs whereas the best environments come from experienced professionals working with the land and contexts, making greater use of Masterplans by those willing to take the risk.

The emphasis is still on process not the pleasing outcome: what it looks like, how it works and how it will improve the environment.

A strong policy framework needs to follow through the practical implications of its policies, but often the devil is in the detail as the following seeks to highlight.

Short Responses to Questions

Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

Investors, developers and risk takers are still submerged under the weight of bureaucratic controls.

Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

The primacy of sustainable development should supersede that of local plan preparation, especially if plans are not up to date and properly justified alternatives are submitted by applicants for planning permission. The present system encourages duplication of argument and much delay for representors who later become applicants.

Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

They are certainly a major step forward.

Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear? No, since much depends on what detail flows from this wide canvas. Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?

[No view]

Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to cooperate”, provide a sufficient basis for larger-than-local strategic planning? No. See submission.

Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence-based? No. See submission.

Introduction

The government has sought radical revision to the planning system through the Localism Bill, originally aimed at transferring power to communities and neighbourhoods, but is now withdrawing somewhat from this, but it still hangs on to the idea of political control, the extent of which does need to be questioned.

Planning in Britain is treated as an administrative process or function, which is odd since the outcome is concerned very largely with the built and man modelled environments, inherently technical rather than political matters. In the aftermath of the Second World War political control was aimed at redistributing populations and employment; this was a quite different problem from that of the 21st century which is concerned with finding our way in a global and multinational economy under the threat of climate change.

Why should planning decisions be left to politicians? Their time in office is usually four years or less, whereas planning is concerned with much longer lasting changes: 60 year life for a building and 15 years (or more) for a development plan. In practice a new political administration seeks to overturn the ideas of the previous one much as one might blame the previous plumber. The system is structured so that officers write a report in accordance with policies drafted by officers to give them flexibility and framed by the politicians and this is assessed by a senior administrator. In practice small schemes are delegated, larger ones go to Committee.

Standing orders vary between authorities as to which route is followed, but the targets for issuing a decision, currently eight or 13 weeks, are set by central government except when a separate, formal planning performance agreement is negotiated for larger more complex applications. The draft NPPF is silent on these targets, although some commentators have suggested a “default” system (similar to that used for telecommunications masts) of automatic approval, and/or a fee refund, if the target is not met.

In many European countries the United States and Canada and so much of the western world planning permission is in effect replaced with a building permit: a legal right to build—a combination of planning permission and building control and is linked to a zoning ordinance. Britain, though priding itself on the flexibility of its system and the opportunities it offers for compromise does not in practice produce significantly better environments as a result than say The Netherlands or Denmark. As Wikipedia says “Theoretically, the primary purpose of zoning is to segregate uses that are thought to be incompatible. In practice, zoning is used to prevent new development from interfering with existing residents or businesses and to preserve the “character” of a community.”

Flexibility and discretion come with a price tag normally expressed through delay in determination. This can and often is associated with a lack of urgency in considering a proposal, hence the suggestion of a default system as referred to above, but able to be varied if the applicant is willing to accept a longer period to settle an unresolved technical issue.

All consultation material should be available to the applicant at the same time as it is received by officers. The widespread practice of denying the applicant access to material until a few days before the Committee should be stopped. This is particularly so since some change to a scheme could overcome the need for the representation at all in many cases.

Committees themselves could be improved by land use planning training for members, or where this proves difficult greater reliance on independent assessments by professionals presenting their findings direct to committees.

Pro Development

The draft National Planning Policy Framework sets a presumption in favour of sustainable development in both plan making and decision taking. Planning should not be an impediment to growth. “The default answer to development proposals is yes except where this would compromise key sustainable development principles”. It wants to make development easier and to reduce bureaucracy. This much is clear.

It offers the structure—hence “Framework”—in principle only of how this is to be achieved without spelling this out in any detail: while the aims and objectives are clear, there is very little detail. It is a structural engineering rather than architectural approach to planning and development.

Greg Clark is reported (29.7.11) as saying “Having whittled down planning policy, the department would now aim to compress underpinning guidance”. Guidance is therefore not to be found here even though it is claimed that the dNPPF is a replacement for the guidance of PPG and PPS. Some process and technical implications of the Framework, and its relevance to the mechanics of development management, are therefore added as an appendix to this document so that clear implications of the framework are not lost in the subsequent detail.

The inference is that detail must come later and what we have is a series of indicators; a policy direction. Not the policies themselves. There are however some specifics such as in the important case of housing supply: authorities are currently required to identify and allocate five years’ worth of land for housing and the draft NPPF adds: “The supply should include an additional allowance of at least 20% to ensure choice and competition in the market for land”.

The proposals, launched for consultation, will not be made official policy until next year but will already of necessity be affecting plans for development (see Advice produced by the Planning Inspectorate for use by its Inspectors 30 August 2011).

Recasting Planning

Much of the public and media reaction more than anything underlines the tragic way in which planning can no longer call a spade a spade if a sound result is to be steered through the minefield of lobbyists’ vested interests, coalition politics and a vociferous public.

Behind this was once a professional discipline whose job was to create worthwhile places in both town and country. It is increasingly rendered frustrating by restrictions unrelated to whether it genuinely makes the proposed scheme under consideration better, or whether the restrictions would be better addressed by other legislation. Sound planning requires the application of many diverse skills. It is not a job to be left to amateurs. It should not be left to whoever shouts loudest and who has never had to work through the many stages and vicissitudes of bringing a real project to fruition—often lasting many years in the creation and enduring for a lifetime or more.

Optimistically the present draft framework allows and indeed encourages a discussion of what environments we actually would like to achieve, rather than complain about the results we otherwise will get and deserve.

Planning should not be left to bureaucratic process, although many public professional planners and associated disciplines are genuinely trying to make places better and have frustrations of their own, while others simply confuse activity (appearing busy) with action (a proper focus on projects and real outcomes—making things happen). It is seldom necessary to determine planning applications on the basis of party political dogma. Constructive direction is far more worthwhile. It is all too easy simply refuse an application at the end of a process which may have taken years for dedicated professionals to create and assemble, rather than offer constructive advice. It is encouraging that the new default position “yes” to sustainable development proposals has this clear implication.

The draft NPPF includes, at paragraph 26, the suggestion that local planning authorities preparing up to date Local Plans could seek a “certificate of conformity” with the Framework. This implies that in a similar way, the development control system should be modified so that applicants would be able to take advantage of the greater certainty included within the Framework to obtain a certificate of conformity with the Local Plan (if up to date) and this would act as a planning permission.

Making Progress with the Framework. Public Involvement. Sustainable Communities

The Framework’s author John Howell believes political consensus is the most important part of the new system. “It’s no use developers consulting communities—consultation is still too much about ‘Here is a proposition: do you like it or not?’; we want to move that on to engagement, where we say ‘Here is a problem: how do we solve it?’”

While problem solving in neighbour relations may be fine on minor and simple development activity it is seldom in practice that the general public (other than an informed few) engages fully with planning of any complexity in any meaningful way since beyond voicing an opinion, they are not trained or equipped to assess it any more than they would be expected to comment on brain surgery or advise on the nation’s economy.

Creating strong, vibrant and healthy communities is a laudable aim. But It is unlikely that genuinely sustainable communities will result from any community led architectural determinism (or social engineering for that matter) that the planning system can offer. This is much more likely to come from large scale proposals involving the likes of village greens and healthy footpath networks as legitimate planning gains or comprehensive mixed urban projects, but these are not included in the draft.

However the draft does aspire to support neighbourhood plans and those parts of the emerging Localism Bill that are relevant. It is difficult, as the detail changes, to know whether these sections will be properly compatible with primary legislation and its supporting orders , etc, when they are finalised later this year and early in 2012.

Public and Private Sectors

The risks and rewards of creating, promoting and implementing schemes, with the inherent chances of success and total failure, are borne by the private sector. This provides incentives to individuals and teams not found in public sector planning where policy mistakes and application refusals are managed without proper culpability for being wrong—ie power without responsibility.

John Howell’s thought that planning can be solved by public bodies and even a well meaning public runs counter to much of planning of any sophistication which requires project based teams with substantial technical and professional skills (developers with dedicated or ad hoc teams of architects, engineers, economists, accountants, builders, environmental specialists and so on). The present draft framework runs the risk of extending the rights of the less informed at the expense of the more informed but focused team. The appeal system has been designed to compensate for this imbalance and usually does. The number of appeals is therefore likely to increase so that the often complex matter of scheme realisation is not lost. This balance is likely to be undermined by widening public involvement. This will not turn most of the general public with a casual interest in these specialist matters into trained professionals. The process is at risk of encouraging contention and dispute rather than clarity of purpose or more worthwhile built results especially for technically complex proposals. This is a major weakness of the proposed framework. Again it is to be hoped that the default position “yes” is adopted to reduce this risk.

The political rhetoric says the presumption in favour of development will work. The substance—to a practitioner—says it won’t. Ambiguity—the enemy of certainty—will lead to endless planning appeals with further resultant delay in realising sound and worthwhile development. The real problem is how to reduce or even eradicate the eternal and often unreasonable contention which most projects can engender—be they house extensions or shopping centres or motorways.

Making Progress with the Framework. Democratic or Informed Decisions

Most planning decisions are in practice not taken truly democratically by politicians but by professional planners, senior officer planning teams, civil servants or appeal inspectors, often informed in more complex or significant projects by design panels. Allowing almost limitless discretion to the decision maker (who has not lived through the different creative stages of a project) does not necessarily result in better outcomes. Frequently the wide discretion provided to local planning authority officers and Councils is illusory or not well exercised, especially in matters of design. An architect whose proposals have been rejected sometimes is met with the stance “you don’t expect me to design it for you do you” by someone with no design qualification or proper design experience. Written design guidance varies from the incisive to the banal. At best it should have the status of advice only. It is encouraging that the draft includes a separate Design section and emphasizes that “design policies should avoid unnecessary prescription or detail and should concentrate on guiding the overall scale, density, massing, height, landscape, layout and access of new development in relation to neighbouring buildings and the local area more generally”.

Masterplans by qualified architectural and design teams are much more likely to produce high quality designs than local plan core strategy diagrams and so should be accorded much greater weight in plan and place making.

Development planning and development control policies should seamlessly make much more use of unambiguous, unqualified, objective and justified standards and yardsticks of acceptability rather than allowing almost limitless scope for wide and subjective and often poor discretion. In many cases this could provide the applicant with much greater certainty, avoid delay and expense to applicants while also avoiding unnecessary staff time or not infrequently unjustifiably claimed skills or range of experience. For example noise exposure categories for residential development in PPG 24 are a clear and unambiguous universal standard. Similar and reasonable universal and unambiguous standards should apply for many other situations eg parking, living space standards, privacy, overlooking and overshadowing and could be extended to contamination, safety, energy, affordable housing and many more.

Clearer and more direct contact should be made between applicants’ specialist appointees and many public specialist regulatory services to avoid the need to overburden individual case officers having to pursue and then interpret technical consultees as in fields such as planning policy, environmental health, traffic and transport, arboriculture, design and landscape design, utility services, energy, demography, disability, minerals, archaeology, section 106 or legal specialists etc. leaving only cases of disagreement to be resolved by politicians or the appeal system. The draft is clear that good-quality pre-application discussion, with all other parties as appropriate, is a key role of local planning authorities. It requires a pro-active approach, timely advice and the participation of other consenting bodies at an early stage. If this is to be really successful, legislation may be needed to make pre-application discussions both mandatory and binding.

Improving the Framework

So what needs addressing in the final version of the Framework? Separating framework from guidance may be easier politically but it will not lead to seamless planning from inception to outcome. The detail is just as important.

Here are some further specific suggestions aimed at encouraging good and worthwhile development.

1.Take the Office for National Statistics figures without political manipulation as a prerequisite for population and household forecasts in formulating strategic Local Plans at the District level and seek to meet them, irrespective of political advantage. This would avoid the anodyne and crippling dispute about reliance on regional targets. Make local plans succinct and genuine frameworks rather than precise detailed blueprints which do not allow for innovative ideas. Ensure they are positive in approach, justified and effective.

2.Accept that planning has to compromise between “need” for things society wants and cannot afford and “demand” for things people are willing to pay for profitably, using realistic charging mechanisms to improve environments (codified section 106 agreements or a community infrastructure levy but not both such as to prevent investment).

3.Protect recognised environments and heritage assets where these are fully justified by proper quality assessments (Conservation Area Assessments with equivalents in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Scheduled Monuments, Listed Buildings etc—not as a list of historical or architecturally interesting artefacts but with a description of their character and their overall quality).

4.Green Belts (especially where development pressures are apparent) should re-examined—without the incorrect claim that they are an environmental designation—to see if they are truly sustainable, since many do not pass this test without being reviewed in their whole District or County context.

5.Development Management. The time for considering a planning application should start when the applicant submits it, not when it is validated. The criteria for validation should be again made distinct from further material that may be required subsequently during its professional evaluation and based on a description of what the applicant wants to do, rather than what the Council wants the applicant to do. Validation should be based on a description and plans sufficient to describe what is intended, not an extensive shopping list of studies the validating officer thinks desirable. If further time is needed before determination this should be agreed between applicant and case officer based on what both consider realistic and reasonable.

Some guidance needs to be based on science: The laws of physics have to be followed by us all and these will have absolute controls on many of land’s capacities: How many four person houses can a given aquifer sustain? How many cars can travel on a road of give width in a given time? No amount of political need for a majority can require houses to be built if the ground is unstable.

Some guidance will be based on opinion: What is the market demand (as opposed to local need) for flats over the next five years for this area? This should result as it always has on viability assessments by those most expert to provide them. While both the draft and the Localism Bill place great emphasis on neighbourhood involvement and giving local people a voice, neither address the problem of how to give a voice to those who aren’t local but would like (or need) to be.

Reducing or eradicating the need for speculative political judgement based on the limited period of an electoral term can only benefit the sustainability of environments: Design panels of architects and other practitioners of long experience must be better than the instant decisions of an overworked planning committee. (The dNPPF seems to acknowledge this in paragraph 120).

Some planning decisions require almost impossible judgements: how many protected newts are worth the loss of a Stately Home? Here the court of informed public opinion may help, although the uninformed or ill informed can so easily produce the wrong answer.

It is wrong to imply that all decisions should be made locally any more than it is that they should be made nationally or regionally. Different approaches are needed for different aspects of any scheme and its possible impacts. (The references to national planning policy for local plans in paragraph 48 and to strategic elements of a neighbourhood plan in paragraph 50 acknowledge the need for these interrelationships but need to be clearer).

Development Management—which has replaced Development Control in name if not in substance—is being encouraged to look for solutions rather than problems. This is clearly a very laudable aim but it needs to recognise where the judgement of officers can be relied on and where expert advice is necessary. In practice distinctions are too often blurred to give the officer, or even the Committee, a spurious discretion. NPPF as drafted offers no help with this when it clearly could.

Again separating out what should be based on pretty unambiguous science or expert assessment needs to be separated from what can only be assessed based on the genius loci of the site or the subjective judgements of informed appraisers. It would also be helpful if state planning were seen as a professional evaluation (as practised by the Inspectorate) rather than an administrative tool of local government with or without political intervention wherever possible.

This is the better route to reduce the current bureaucracy and meet the stated aspirations of the draft policy framework to facilitate good development.

8 September 2011

APPENDIX

The following additional comments are added In the light of Greg Clark’s wish to follow the framework with PPG and PPS reviews and how the process can work in practice.

A serious and growing weakness is the poor level of trust between officials and applicants or the wider public. A symptom of this is in communication. If a planning officer agrees to return a telephone call by an applicant or planning agent he should do so, and the agent should be similarly trusted. *The same should apply to other timetables either party sets. Like trains, they should run on time. It is artificial to divorce much political policy framework from the guidance itself as the following illustrate:

At a simple level who sets the guidelines on acceptable residential noise levels in the absence of PPG 24 which has been around based on unchallenged science unchallenged since October 1994? Similarly with air quality (PPG23).

The science of responding to climate change to meet measurable rates of greenhouse gas emissions with renewable energy strategies etc. should meet international and nationally set objectives and not be for individual district councils to try to assess.

What can local authorities base their demographic assessments on other than the State’s own impartial Office for National Statistics for each local authority? These—without political manipulation—should be stated prerequisites for all future planning or housing forecasts and therefore provision will come unstuck.

What are the criteria for privacy and overlooking distances—are these to continue to be at the unscientific whim of every different planning authority in the land as though people’s eyesight differs from place to place?

Are we to continue to have the eternal disputes over what constitutes a satisfactory design based on the highly sophisticated to inexpert guidance of different Councils (Compare The City Corporation or Westminster with Hertsmere or Broxbourne)?

Is waste management to be left to what each local authority can afford? This would result in unfair and unequal standards, so why not set national or regional standards to ensure adequately healthy environments?

(In the case of contaminated land reliance is placed on the footnote statement “As a minimum, the land should not be capable of being determined as contaminated land under Part IA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990”). Who decides what more than the minimum - if anything - is needed?

Transport is proposed to be left to the local planning authority, though obviously influenced by the requirements of highway authorities. Why not simply accept and adopt highway authority guidance as most planning officers do in practice?

We are told that Sustainable transport modes are: “Any means of transport with low impact on the environment, including walking and cycling, green or low emission vehicles, car sharing and public transport”. How inexact and vague is that?

It is salutary to ask how the national guidance will help at the coal face in the case of specific planning applications by looking at the validation checklist which can be very long and has been growing. Similarly, the 1APP set of forms need to be reviewed and overhauled (simplified where possible) in the light of the past two years of experience in use.

In addition to drawings of a scheme the requirements to validate an application for permission may include the following:

Supporting Planning Statement.

Design statement.

Access statement.

Transport assessment.

Draft Travel Plan.

Planning obligations.

Flood risk assessment/drainage strategy.

Listed building appraisal and conservation area appraisal.

Regeneration statements.

Retail assessments.

Affordable housing statement.

Open Space.

Sustainability Appraisal.

Landscaping.

Tree survey/arboricultural statement.

Historical, archaeological features and Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

Nature conservation/ecological assessment/natural beauty.

Noise impact assessment.

Air quality assessment.

Assessment for the treatment of foul sewage.

Utilities Statement.

Energy statement.

Sound insulation requirements.

Mineral working and restoration.

Sunlight/Daylighting Assessment.

Ventilation/extraction and refuse disposal details.

Structural survey of the property details of any lighting scheme including a light pollution assessment.

Photographs and Photomontages.

The above shows that any national policy framework needs to be clear about what is political aspiration and what is scientific certainty.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011