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 us.

Conspiracy theories

December 17th, 2020

At a time when conspiracy theories abound, let me start another one: Local planning authorities are actively hiding their development plans and guidance documents in the deepest recesses of their websites to induce madness amongst the development sector.

It’s true. Everyone is saying it. Well I am, anyway, after my week so far.

On Monday I wanted to find the background evidence to a recent Preferred Strategy document issued by a South Wales authority. It took me an hour to find it; and even then, discovered that the Council had saved ALL its evidence documents as a single, two-thousand odd page PDF file so large that the kettle boiled twice while waiting for it to download.

Yesterday, I wanted to review the validation checklist for a major development in the Midlands. A checklist prepared jointly by three Councils offered web links to individual topic documents, which would have been impressive had the links not all expired.

Today, I have visited that same Council’s online proposals map to see that while it cross refers to three development plan documents, only two are actually available to read, with the third so aged it presumably predated the birth of Acrobat Reader.

My point is this. We already have a development plan system that is overcomplicated. In England in particular, that there can be three, four or even five documents forming the ‘development plan’ all of different ages and often conflicting with each other. That is bad enough, but when you can’t then find the documents, how does a developer properly understand what the relevant policy framework or guidance is, whether a proposal is policy compliant or what is needed to get an application registered?

This is particularly important in Covid times. The idea of ringing a friendly officer for clarification or an e-mail copy of a document has now gone. Council offices, like their private sector counterparts, are deserted.

We are therefore reliant more than ever on Councils keeping websites up to date and making sure key documents and information can be inspected without needing to employ Inspector Barnaby to find them.

Unfortunately, reading many Council websites is like picking up one of those creased and dog eared school textbooks that have been used by ten generations of students before you – tired, dated and littered with old wisdom that has long been debunked.

Even more bewildering is that it seems every single authority adopts a different system for sharing information on the web. Why isn’t there a single national website where current development plan coverage can be shared and integrated, perhaps with mapping on matters such as planning applications?

For a profession that considers informing and communicating information to be part of its essential skill set, why are planners, from central government downwards, generally so poor at utilising the opportunities that the internet offers to engage with the public and the development sector?

Perhaps its not a conspiracy to hide the information, but simply that the world of planning is run largely by people who struggle to understand the opportunity that the internet affords us; conservative-minded luddites who think that TikTok is the internet version of the speaking clock and instinctively look skywards whenever someone mentions storing information in the cloud.

Is this a conspiracy to make planning less and less relevant to modern society? If it is, it may have some truth in it….