The Mango Blog

An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning


All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice!

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  • Travel back in time with the Planning Portal....

  • A few years ago, a young upstart on the graduate entry programme told the mandarins in Whitehall about this wonderful new fangled thing called the world wide internet super highway and how it could change the world. Most of the boffins just harrumphed loudly and then settled back to sipping sherry and reading the Financial Times. It WAS after 4pm, after all.

    At the back of the room however, one of the mandarins took a moment to absorb the news of this new development. Perhaps, yes perhaps, this youngster was onto something. Perhaps this was the thing that would change the world's view on bureacracy. Better still, perhaps this could make his own profession, planning, popular and sexy......

    ...and the Planning Portal was born.

    Save paper, time and money by submitting planning applications on-line. A simple message. Who could not just love it?

    Well me, for a start. I detest it.

    Take the application submission interface. Yes, please take the interface. If you can find it. The portal itself been designed by a government department with graphic design abilities that Captain Blackadder would describe as akin to "Ten colour blind hedgehogs. In a bag." It is about as inspiring as a week old caesar salad and is marginally less intuitive. It takes so long to complete the endless forms that if you started one today, by the time you get to the end of it Scotland will be independent and Greece will be using the Drachma.

    Then there is the restrictions that it imposes. Plans and documents cannot be more than 5MB in size, so larger reports need to be split into several parcels and some poor administrator the other end has to rebuild them like some kind of mind numbing jigsaw puzzle. In this world of fibre optic internet connections why is it that the planning portal thinks local authority systems can cope only with the file sizes generated by A3 monochrome plans?

    The most ridiculous thing of all however is that if you upload a plan to the portal you need to confirm that you have printed the plan out at its original size before sending it. So, the paperless application system requires me to print off a full size copy of a plan that I do not want. Very eco, Mr planning portal dude. Of course, by asking me that question, it also assumes that someone else will be printing the plans. Even more eco friendly.

    So to the fees. Just to get the nationalist point out first, the statutory fees that the portal generates for applications in Wales are just plain wrong. It is as though it has applied an exchange rate to the English Pound. Perhaps it knows something about independence for Wales that I don't.

    In terms of actually making payments, we were told at one training session for the portal that all we needed to do was to put credit card details into the website and bingo, all done. The planning portal dude was slightly taken aback when we pointed out that not a single person in the company had a limit that could support the £50,000 application fee for our next submission.

    No problem he said, just post a cheque.... Sounds simple? One would think so, but it is no easy task getting the cheque reconciled with the online application. That isn't surprising given that some authorities tell me that they get applications where the cheque never appears at all. Yes, somewhere out there there are people submitting applications on the Planning Portal as a joke. Oh, how they must chuckle.....

    The final moan of the day is what happens with my electronic submission the other end. It is like the planning portal dudes were told to create a webpage, not a system for processing planning applications.

    The whole raison d'etre of submitting on-line is that it is faster and you don't need to chop down a forest the size of Wales (forests are measured in multiples thereof) to get an application registered.

    The reality is however that some local authorities seem to want all that paper. I have no idea why. Perhaps they need the paper to fire up their wood stove heating. Maybe they need to prop up damaged furniture and there are not enough brick samples in the office to do the job. For whatever reason, I have yet to submit a major application without someone calling up for ten additional hard copies - and sounding very indignant when I protest.

    In most cases I am told that it is because certain consultees apparently don't have the facilities to read the electronic copies already submitted. With few exceptions, that's just laziness in my view. The planning system has moved into the new century (just about) and consultees ought to catch up. I was told by the planning portal dude to refuse to supply hard copies to authorities that request them. Great idea but triggering the wrath of the parish council isn't usually a good idea.

    So why do I use it if I detest it so much? Aside from the very marginal environmental benefits, that is? Perhaps there is some slightly perverse pleasure in knowing that the submissions are often greeted the other end by exclamations of "Oh hell it's another one of those electronic applications".

    More likely its because whether one likes it or not, e-submissions are the way of the future. Only by showing the boffins that it being used and is here to stay can we drag them up to the plate and force them to deliver us a modern system that achieves those original objectives.



  • Its all about the jobs...

  • It is not often that I find myself congratulating the Welsh Government. Today, however, I take off my woolly hat to them. They have released proposals to change planning policy to be more friendly towards new development and inward investment.

    The credit crunch and recession have been with us for a number of years and it is surprising that it has taken so long, but I will not dwell on that. It is the content that counts.

    In that respect, the policy is in many ways suspiciously similar to that which has been around in England for a number of years. The definition of economic land uses have been broadened to include other non traditional employment categories such as retail, leisure and public services. It also recognises that land supply needs to be considered for these economic uses and not just sheds and offices.

    The general tenor is that planning authorities have a balancing act to achieve, supporting economic and employment growth alongside social and environmental sustainability.

    It makes clear that planning authorities must adopt a positive and constructive approach to applications for economic development.

    For some authorities, that is old news. There are a number of good examples in Wales where planning departments have been working alongside economic development colleagues to provide this kind of approach. It is however a wake up call to those other planning authorities and national park authorities that have traditionally seen development as a bad thing to be resisted at all cost.

    In that regard it makes abundantly clear that the economic benefits of a proposal ought to be given equal weight to social and environmental issues and can in fact in some cases outweigh such considerations.

    Perhaps the most significant part of the emerging guidance is that gives specific instruction to local planning authorities to look favourably on applications for economic land uses that are not in accordance with the development plan if the economic benefits of the development are demonstrated to outweigh any adverse impacts.

    These changes are a real, and in my view welcome, poke in the eye for the eco-mentalist lobby (as Clarkson would describe it) that seems in recent years to have gained free reign over the planning system and in my experience frightened new investment and jobs out of the Principality.

    It is also a clear message to those planning authorities who consider that their contribution to economic development starts and ends with the allocation and re-allocation of tracts of unattractive land for industrial sheds that they must change their ways.

    The most important signal that the policy sends is to people outside of Wales. It shows investors and developers from across the border that they should not be put off by Wales's obsessions with sustainability standards and carrier bags. It shouts loud and clear that Wales is once again open for business.

    Whether the policy succeeds or not is of course in the hands of local authorities. While some will grasp the nettle, I am sure there will be some senior officers and councillors who will pretend that nothing has changed.

    In those cases the Welsh Government needs to make it absolutely clear that they will not hesitate to intervene where old style planning stands in the way of new jobs.



  • Localism - People Power or Nimby Nirvana?

  • Well we have it at last. The Localism Bill was signed into legislation last week and is now the Localism Act 2011.

    Considering the fanfare that surrounded the Bill's introduction, the passing of the Act was the legislative equivalent of Bonfire Night in the rain. Not surprising really, though. Perhaps before making such an issue of it, the Westminster Government should have realised that it had set itself the impossible task of satisfying the largely middle-class desire to set middle England in the stone age and halt all development while also remaining the friends of business and setting a positive framework for new investment in those very same areas.

    The result then is a bit of a damp squib. Worse, it is a pretty indecipherable damp squib. Lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of all those legal challenges that will inevitably follow the application of the various elements of the legislation.

    For those residing in England, the DCLG has published an idiots guide to the Act, presumably so that Ministers can understand what they have signed us all up for.

    For Wales, the position is even more confusing. The legislation scribes have had immense difficulty in understanding how an Act of Parliament sits with Measures proposed by the Assembly.

    In England, local authorities are to be given a general right of competence ( I will leave it to others to make the jokes about competence and local authorities being mentioned in the same sentence). This means that they can basically do anything that is lawful, much like an individual and not be constrained by that "silly old restriction" imposed by just a few centuries of public law that actions of public bodies should be constrained by the powers they are specifically granted.

    There is also a community right to stop private landowners selling buildings or open space before the community has been given the opportunity to buy it off them. Sounds good, but how many communities will take advantage of this? I am willing to bet that apart from a few pristine villages on the fringes of London filled with wealthy and oft retired Major Generals, Guardian journalists, bankers and others that can spare a few 'k' to buy the village pub (that is being sold precisely because those same people couldn't be bothered to drink there when it was trading) no-one is interested. A community right to build suffers, in my view, the same fatal flaw.

    The piece de resistance of the English nimby's Magna Carta is the neighbourhood plan. Apparently, what we really need to deliver the communities we want is yet another tier of planning documentation. What makes this one special is that it isn't to be sullied by the views of elected district councillors. However divorced from reality councillors can be sometimes, they are still put there by the electorate. How can a neighbourhood plan prepared by unelected people be truly a plan of the neighbourhood?

    So what does Wales get? Well for the first time in many months I find myself congratulating the Welsh Government's planners for cherry picking the best bits of the Act and keeping us well away from the more loopy bits.

    For example, we get changes to CIL. We get the requirement for pre-application consultation to be undertaken for certain types of planning application- the scope of which is to be established by a later development order. Sensibly, 'local finance considerations' are excluded as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications.

    The argument of WG has been that many of the principles of localism have been a part of Welsh planning for years and we don't need an Act to tell us to listen to the locals. If WG can carry that pragmatism forward in the various ongoing reviews of the welsh planning system and the new Planning Act, then there is hope for it yet.



  • It's the economy, stupid

  • As much as I try and avoid addressing the same topic in my blog twice, I simply cannot not stay quiet over the Welsh Government's limp wristed efforts to support the economy of this fair nation.

    Last week Carwyn Jones as good as shrugged his shoulders and told us there is no money to support the economy. Fine, we all know there is no cash, but how about using other powers that the Welsh Government have fought hard to achieve, to encourage a positive environment for inward investment, development and jobs?

    Professor Dylan Jones-Evans summarised neatly the problem we have in Wales. We have a government that is either afraid of the business sector or lacking in any real understanding of the commercial world. When they have set up committees to look at key issues they seem to have an incredible knack of appointing retired people and unionistas. No wonder they appear to be looking backwards, not forwards.

    I have read today the latest consultation from the planning department at the Assembly. It is seeking views on how the government can more accurately measure the sustainability of the planning process. It is a bureacrat's dream. Let me quote you my favourite bit:

    "The logic chain approach was used in the research to develop a 'theory
    of change' for planning to enable measures to be devised. This would
    understand the cause and effect of the planning system on sustainable
    development"

    The document is 51 pages long and is out for consultation until January.

    Perhaps if they concentrated on delivering the economic strand of sustainable development then we would have something meaningful to measure.



  • Mr Griffiths, your carrier bags are suffocating our economy!

  • For many years it was the case that Wales led the way in proactively encouraging development and the jobs that this could bring. While England and its planning system wrapped itself up in red tape, I was proud to be able to say that the Welsh approach was a simple and pragmatic one of supporting development unless there were reasons not to.

    This mantra was not cast in policy. It didn't need to be. The economic impacts of the 1980s closures of the mines sparked a realisation that Wales needed jobs from other sources.

    As Wales's economy rebounded however, the benefits of new development and the investment and jobs that it brings seem to have to be forgotten by some local authorities and certainly by the Welsh Government.

    When the banking crisis hit in 2007 Scotland was quick to declare itself 'open for business' and dictats were sent to Chief Planners across the nation to ensure that new investment was received favourably. In England, new planning guidance was consulted upon and then issued, through PPS4, to support new economic development and subsequent ministerial statements have underlined the presumption in favour of development.

    In Wales? Nothing. At the Planning conference in Cardiff in June 2009 I don't recall Jane Davidson, the then Environment Minister in Wales, making any mention of the economic crisis or the role of planning in helping to address it. Indeed, speaking about this later with a WAG employee, I was told in no uncertain terms that economic development and planning were different departments!
    .
    Over the last three years there have been calls from many in the development sector for the Welsh Government to make some form of positive statement to encourage new economic development in Wales.

    Instead, all we got were new rules on sustainability that, while laudable in principle, increased building costs for developers and therefore placed Wales at a further economic disadvantage from the rest of the UK.

    In February Eluned Morgan, highlighted what we have all been saying for an age – ' It's the economy, stupid'.

    Certainly, reading through the press releases of the Welsh Government over the past year, one would have thought that the economy is fine and that the key political issues of the day were how to look after our pet rabbits (Yes, they have done a 36 page report on this), carrier bags, smacking our children and giving more powers to the Assembly.

    Yesterday, some major wind energy companies hit the press with complaints about how difficult it was to negotiate the planning system and invest in Wales. One of the companies highlighted that the system was lacking in clarity, was "confused" and "investors could ultimately turn to alternative markets where there is greater certainty, either elsewhere in the UK, in Europe or beyond". Harsh criticism, but, as much as I regret saying it, probably fairly leveled.

    There is often a warning on the side of carrier bags reminding users to beware of suffocation. Perhaps the Welsh Government should heed this advice and give the development sector the oxygen it desperately needs.