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Planning delivery – winds of change or just hot air?

June 1st, 2012

It was the RTPI annual planning conference in Cardiff this week, which I have to say was one of the best such events I have attended for some time. Well done to Roisin Wilmott for organizing it.

I will admit that part of my enthusiasm is in part down to the rather nice (recyclable) bags we received on arrival and the particularly good stock of competitor consultancies’ pens, pencils and post it notes that I was able to acquire.

However, what really made it for me is that, for the first time in years, the conference seemed to grapple head on the issues that really matter out there in the development world. If previous conferences had been friendly lightweight bouts, this one was more akin to cage fighting.

The theme of the event was delivery. The underlying message from start to finish was that the Welsh Government and certain local authorities need to start focusing on the outcomes of the planning process, not the process itself. The day was full of examples where the process has failed both the economy and the environment and no one could have been left in any doubt that change is required.

Against that backdrop one would reasonably have thought that there is a wind of change blowing through the planning offices of the Principality. Yet immediately after the conference I spoke with a colleague (who did not attend) regarding the frustration he had with getting a simple change of use application registered.

Picture the scene. An existing, vacant shop unit within a local centre is proposed to be changed to a quality restaurant. The existing building is largely fit for purpose and so the only need for interaction with the planning system is to change the use class from A1 to A3, with no built works at all. Simple? Apparently not.

Firstly, a design and access statement was demanded, despite there being no built works required or proposed. How does one explain the design of something that hasn’t been designed? This is however a WG requirement of the recent Development Procedure Order and the local authority had no ability to waive the requirement. As such, time and money was wasted preparing a document we didn’t want to write and the planning department was likely not to read.

Secondly, the local authority insisted upon internal layout plans of the proposed restaurant, despite internal arrangements falling outside the scope of planning control. The reason was apparently to calculate car parking requirements yet there was no policy or SPG basis for the request.

At the conference this week there was a compelling presentation by Dr Calvin Jones of Cardiff Business school highlighting the global oil crisis that sits just around the corner and the need, amongst many other things, for clear measures to reduce our dependency on car use. Yet, still, the welsh planning system still includes an effective presumption in favour of meeting the demands of motorists. Conceptually, this is just plain wrong, particularly in locations (such as this) where there is genuine accessibility by many other modes of transport.

My colleague’s argument against providing an internal layout plan was not however that the principle of providing parking was plain wrong (even though it is!). There was a genuine practical difficulty in that, as is common in cases such as this, the client had not and would not prepare any such plans until the change of use planning permission was secured and the premises acquired.

In such circumstances the pragmatic approach would have been to apply an approximate net to gross ratio, as is commonly done for food store schemes. Such an approximation would be eminently reasonable since internal arrangements would in any event fall ordinarily outside the scope of planning and so any plans supplied could not reasonably be expected to be anything other than illustrative.

Once again, however, the system (in this case the local planning authority) showed no pragmatism at all and insisted on costly, meaningless and unenforceable plans being supplied.

Thirdly, despite the application being for a change of use only and despite the fact that it would need to be the subject of a separate application in any event, the local authority asked for details of extraction plant locations. While the detail of the plant was not known to the client for reasons explained already, general locations could be assumed and my colleague was happy to indicate these to the local authority.

What then happened however was the bureaucratic icing on the cake – the local authority demanded a design and access statement to consider the plant that we were not actually applying for. The absurdity was there for all to see. My colleague was being asked to explain the design philosophy for plant of which there were no details; and to demonstrate how the client had made the area of roof upon which the plant would be sited accessible to the less mobile. Forgive me, but having to provide a document explaining how people can travel to the roof plant by public transport is not just absurd, it is plain stupid.

This example typifies the difficulties with planning at the moment in Wales. The process is standing in the way of the delivery. In this case, delivery of the economic benefits of new jobs and investment and the environmental benefits of bringing into beneficial reuse a vacant building in an eminently sustainable location.

The conference discussed delivery in terms of environmental issues standing in the way of economic development, yet in truth planning has always been about balancing these two issues. What stands in the way, and what gives planning a bad name in the development community, is the process by which the balancing is undertaken.

Regrettably, pragmatism and proportionality in far too many cases still do not exist in the Welsh Government and local authority lexicon. The creation of local lists and application checklists were intended to bring clarity to the system and to ensure fully informed decisions, but have instead in cases such as illustrated above provide sustenance to the ‘computer says no’ attitude that still exists in some parts of the public sector, to the detriment of both the economy and the environment.

Attendees at the RTPI conference received that message loud and clear. I live in hope that the message is taken back to the town halls across Wales and brings about the culture change we need desperately.

As one of the, excellent, conference speakers rightly put it, consulting and talking about improving the planning system is good, but delivery is what it is all about.