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Development management changes in Wales #1 – Time to make an exhibition of yourselves!

February 25th, 2016

On 16th March a range of significant changes to development management procedures come into force in Wales. These form one component of a wider raft of changes introduced by the Welsh Government in the Planning Wales Act (2015), all with the apparent overarching objective of encouraging growth in Wales, through delivery of a more effective planning system. Over the next few weeks we will be giving our take on the changes that the Act will bring about.

The first key change that will impact upon developers in Wales, and the subject of today’s blog post, are those in relation to pre-application consultation. There is a clear emphasis from the Welsh Government that front loading applications is the way it sees planning decisions being made more quickly and efficiently.

From 16th March there will be a standard statutory process and fee structure for the provision of pre-application advice by Councils, requiring them to provide formal pre-app advice and creating a national fee structure (up to £1,000 for large, major development). A written response to all enquiries must be provided within 21 days, unless an extension of time is agreed. A good start, then. Yes, there will undoubtedly be issues about actually getting a response from a Council within 21 days but it will at least curb the money grabbing pre-application fees that some Councils have tried to impose in recent months. Key of course is the quality of the pre-application advice, and experience of that has been rather mixed. Will applicants get value for money? Only time will tell.

A further addition to the red tape of planning in Wales is the requirement that, from 1 August 2016, all outline and full applications for major development (10 dwelling plus, over 1,000 sq m of other buildings) will have to be accompanied by the Pre-Application Consultation Report in order to be validated.

This report will need to demonstrate that an applicants has met statutory pre-application consultation requirements, which essentially comprises putting up a site notice for 28 days prior to submission and making the draft application available for review.

A site notice must be put up to advertise the intention to submit a planning application, which seems eminently sensible. However, it is notable that unlike other forms of notice, there is no obligation for the period of display of this notice period to be proximate to the actual date of submission.

The more onerous and complicated requirement is that a copy of the draft application must be available for viewing online and at a publicly accessible location for a period of 28 days. This just illustrates the lack of real world planning experience that seems to exist in the annals of Cathays Park.

Unlike local planning authorities, most applicants rarely have a ‘base’ close to an application site available as a public venue. Is it really to be expected that applicants rent space and employ staff for a month so that this requirement can be met? One option is to specify a location where the pre-application documentation may be viewed online, such as a public library. However, with many towns losing these facilities, and with many smaller towns never having them anyway, this seems a poor solution for much of rural Wales. The same applies to the suggestion by Sir Humphrey that maybe the local bank could house an exhibition. Finding a major bank outside of the big towns these days is nigh on impossible.

Applicants must also write to the owners and occupiers of adjacent properties/land and consult community and specialist consultees, with a copy of the application also to be made available for them to comment on. Statutory consultees will need to provide a substantive response in 21 days (and their response during determination of the application should not deviate from this.) There is no indication however how private applicants, without the access to public address databases of Councils, will be able to determine the owners of unoccupied land. Again, this is a Sir Humphrey-inspired idea that could bring real difficulties on the ground.

No-one disputes that there benefits to undertaking consultation prior to submission of major applications. Indeed that is why pre-application consultation is done already for most major applications at the moment, without the need for a poking stick from Sir Humphrey. The feedback received through pre-application with authorities and statutory consultees or local public exhibitions can be very helpful in forming a scheme that responds to local issues and concerns.

One of the important aspects of current, non-statutory pre-application consultation is that applicants choose for the form of consultation that is most likely to be effective in conveying the essence of the scheme to those affected by it. This means distilling technical issues and language into words that non-professionals can understand and having staff on hand at exhibitions to answer queries.

The formal consultation requirements do not require applicants to explain their proposals or to make any effort to exhibit them in non-technical language. In fact, the requirement is for applicants to make the draft application and technical reports available for inspection only. This in practice adds little to helping communities and residents to understand the proposals and find answers to concerns.

It also seems rather defeating the purpose to force consultation with a technical application pack that is ready for submission. It leaves little room for change when a scheme is so advanced. It is more of a fait accompli rather than a genuine consultation.

A further twist is that, as has been seen with other legislation drafted by Sir Humphrey that the Order does not account for multiple proposals on adjacent sites that individually would fall below the threshold but together would exceed it. So if you want to dodge the requirements, splitting a scheme into bite size chunks would seem to be the way to go.

As with all the changes that WG seem to introduce in the planning arena – and there are many – the new consultation requirements have not been well advertised and it remains to be seen how aware and prepared the development sector is for these changes. This assumes of course that there remains a development sector in Wales for major development after this new raft of red tape makes planning in Wales even more complex than across the border in England.