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!

For specific help on planning matters, please contact Mango.

  • 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

    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.

  • I just want to chat with a planning officer.. help!

  • Up until a few years ago it was quite possible to ring up a local planning authority, speak to an officer about a proposal, reach a view as to whether it was likely to be a runner or not, and that would be the end of the matter.

    Now it seems that there is a conspiracy afoot to stop planning officers making contact with developers and practitioners outside of an extant planning application. There are, it seems, three tactics to keep us apart.

    Tactic 1: Call centres. You ring up what you think is an officer's direct line only to be spoken to by a 'customer experience facilitator' who demands your postcode, jots down a garbled interpretation of your message and promises to get someone to call you back. Last week a colleague was told that someone would call back 'within ten working days'. A fortnight to return a call! Of course, if an officer decides not to call you back, you have to chase... and speak to the call centre again.

    Tactic 2: Duty officers. I have no issue with officers taking it in turn to deal with queries. However, they are often the most junior staff who can do little more than read back the UDP, LDF or whatever. I have called up a number of authorities where the development control officers on duty have no idea what is happening with their own LDFs or LDPs. Hmm. The worst tactic however is to have a duty officer available only on certain days of the week. So three days out of five there is absolutely no-one to deal with the query.

    Tactic 3: Pre application charges. I suspect that the barriers described above are all part of a cunning plan to get us on the track of paying pre application charges. A few years ago the courts declared these as unlawful, but the Labour administration changed this, allowing charges provided that they reflected the cost of providing the service.

    How can it be then that an increasing number of local authorities impose a charge for a single meeting that is twice or three times the cost of a senior planning consultant attending the very same meeting and undertaking the very same preparation? That assumes of course that the consultant is paid for that initial meeting which is these days often not the case.

    These charges have arisen just at the time when developers are doing everything they can to reduce up front costs of new schemes. They simply make development more inaccessible to smaller, local developers.

    Ah, I hear you say, but they can save the developer time and money later. In some cases that is true, although that doesn't help cashflow. I must say however that so far, in virtually every case that I have paid for pre-application advice I have been sorely disappointed with the quality of the preparation, the seniority of who we ended up meeting and the robustness of the advice given.

    There is some positive news though. Yesterday I met with a local authority historically not known for its proactive approach. My developer client was positively welcomed into the area by a senior officer and told he would be allocated a single officer that would deal with all of his projects so that development could be sped through the system as smoothly as possible. We got constructive and positive comments and all for no pre-application charge.

  • Strategic Environmental Assessment - And the point is....?

  • I was asked this week to submit representations to a deposit plan on behalf of a landowner who wants the boundary of a town centre allocation extended a few hundred metres to include his site. It's a great idea. It is a prime development site that could readily be developed in a manner that supports the town centre as a whole. But that's not the point that I want to write about. What I want to vent my spleen about today is the ridiculously complex and time consuming process that making representations to plans has now become as a consequence of the SEA requirements.

    The idea of considering the environmental effects of proposals at a plan making stage is on its face a good one and I applaud the EU for thinking about it. However once again the UK government has taken a simple concept, wrapped it up in red tape and translated it into bureaucratic mumbo jumbo that few regular folk can comprehend.

    So now, instead of promoting the site's inclusion within the town centre boundary and extolling its obvious benefits in terms of supporting the centre, jobs, encouraging sustainable transport patterns and the like, and confiming that no badgers or other bugs and bunnies will be harmed in the process, I now have to answer questions such as whether the proposal will "challenge anti social behaviour'", "maintain coastal bathing waters" or, (my favourite) "empower people to take responsibility for their own health".

    But that isn't enough. As the site I am looking at is within 2km as the crow flies from a field that some boffin has designated an SAC, I have to consider the effect of my proposed change on grazing levels, agricultural improvements and, the best of all, the effect on parasites.

    Perhaps if the ecobureaucrats stopped sucking the life out of new development with pointless checklists the parasites would get a fairer deal....

  • A strong welsh economy? Try communicating...

  • Yesterday the new Environment Minister at the Welsh Government accepted, apparently without reservation, the recommendations of a research study that the planning system in Wales needs to be more focused on supporting development that brings jobs.

    It is disappointing that it has taken until we are at the tail end of the economic downturn for this pretty obvious conclusion, to hit home with the Welsh Government. However, now they are on message perhaps there are some other obstacles to the creation of jobs and investment in Wales that they ought to get their teeth into.

    As I head towards London on the train, the first obstacle that springs to mind is communications with our biggest neighbour and market, England.

    London and the south east is a significant generator of investment in Wales. Many welsh businesses, large and small, look to London for new business. However, a standard return ticket from Bridgend to London at peak time is now over £200. For a journey of 150 miles. I have flown to Toronto for less.

    Yes there are cheaper tickets available for this journey, Mr First Great Western, but not at the time that business folks need to travel. It isn't any cheaper the other way either.

    Then there are the toll booths at the Severn Bridge. You only have to see the queues that build up there at peak times to realise just how much cash is being taken out of our economy and sent to France. While it is easy to try and blame the operators, they have a contract and are only doing what the Government said they could. The burden is felt disproportionately by Wales based haulage companies wishing to serve the south west. Of course, it could also potentially hit English hauliers wishing to serve Wales, but for the big companies like Eddie Stobart based in the midlands or the north of England they can use the M50 at no cost.

    From a planning perspective however, my biggest concern of the bridge is the effect on Newport. Sandwiched between Cardiff and Bristol this is a potentially fantastic City that needs all the help it can get to draw in new spending and attract city centre investment. The bridge, and in particular its queues and its costs, play a part in cutting off a large potential market.

    So, what to do? If the charges are set in stone, then why not offer rebates to businesses based in assisted areas? Why not insist upon all the booths being opened at all times to reduce queues and delay?

    To air communications. The sum total of our international airport links is the newly renamed Cardiff Airport. Which isn't in Cardiff. That wouldn't be a problem if one could get there easily from Cardiff city centre or the M4. However the road links are dire. The train stops in Rhoose village and in my experience there is precious little information on how to get from there to the airport itself. Local buses stop at the airport but many demand exact change – not something that the typical visitor landing in Cardiff from overseas is likely to have. And then there is the parking. If they are going to charge the kind of prices that they do, decent tarmac and signage isn't unreasonable to ask for. And charging for 'premium' waiting and drop off? I am acutely embarrassed every time I drop off or collect a client or visitor from the airport. Compared to Edinburgh or Belfast, Cardiff's airport sometimes appears quite parochial.

    Of course the biggest problem for Cardiff airport is that few airlines seem to fly there. Cardiff Airport's catchment is smaller than that of Bristol, but it is so difficult to get to the airport by ground that even its natural catchment turns to Bristol where it can. This has to be addressed at a strategic level.

    The biggest communication problem in Wales in my view, however is that the fastest way to get from south to north (other than the Ieuanair service from Cardiff to Holyhead) is to drive via England. North Wales is functionally better related to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham than it is Cardiff. You only have to hear the traffic reports every evening to know that there will be serious congestion at the Shottick lights on the A55 as commuters flow east and west. Some of those people want to go south, but can't! The absence of new road and rail links from south to north also denies areas of mid Wales the communications that they need to trade effectively north and south.

    Communications remain a cornerstone of the success of the welsh economy, yet the Welsh Government seems to an outside observer such as myself often to be more interested in matters such as banning carrier bags than tackling the big issues like this.

    Of course, the Welsh Government would be justified to an extent in saying they simply do not have the devolved powers to address the big issues. The recent vote to extend those powers takes away that justification. For the sake of the long term future of the welsh economy I hope that they take decisive action on Wales's communication problems - and quickly.