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.

Finding policy documents; its a game of hide and seek!

November 1st, 2021

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I had always thought this an esoteric concept, until I spent many hours trying to discover information about an area designated as a Conservation Area last week and undertaking a similar exercise this week trying to find out about a SINC. Both exercises raised the same question – If a policy or environmental designation is made but the details are so well hidden that no-one knows anything about it or is able to uncover anything about it, is it a designation at all?

This is not as abstract as it might first appear. It is a fundamental principle of law in the UK that if you are to comply with a law, it ought to be documented somewhere public. Yes, it might mean that only those with knowledge of the law know where to look, but it is there. Take the recent volumes of coronavirus regulations. They be indecipherable to mere mortals, but no-one can say that they couldn’t find them; They are signposted on Government websites and, of course, collated by HMSO online.

Take my Conservation Area issue. The Local Plan shows the boundary of the Conservation Area, but of real importance in this case was understanding the qualities that led to the designation. The qualities are required under the legislation to be set out in a Conservation Area Statement. There was nothing on the Conservation pages of the Council website and, even after a number of telephone enquiries, no-one could provide me with a copy (The response was that “It was done in the 1970s so I am not sure we have a copy”). It really does beg the question how in such circumstances the planning authority is able to determine any applications for Conservation Area Consent.

Then there was the SINC. I only knew of it because the landowner told me he had heard it somewhere, but I found not a dicky bird about it on the Council website or in the development plan. The only reference to it was in an EIA supplement done by a specialist ecologist. The need for this supplement had been because that had to make a belated acknowledgement that their application site had, in fact, affected a SINC but they had not considered this in the original assessment as they had not been able to find either the name or the basis of its designation as such. Evidently, they had experienced the same issue as I.

At a national level, the MAGIC system hosted by DEFRA is great for showing statutory landscape and ecology designations. The NRW pages show flood plains, the Coal Authority portal shows (albeit in poor detail) the extent of coal mining and the HSE portal shows the extent of apparatus and their exclusion zones. The privately run provides a really useful platform for finding national policy and law changes.

Yes, all these resources would ideally be in one single place, but the information is there at a national level.

So, why is Council level information – information that could make the difference not only between planning permission and refusal, but between prosecution and not being prosecuted, so difficult to find?

Perhaps Councils are now so inundated with drafting policy documents to meet the latest whim of Government, they have lost sight of the basics. Perhaps, as I have noted in previous blogs, those who run our planning system have little grasp of how technology may be used to make the system run more efficiently and transparently. Perhaps they can’t see the wood for the trees.