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.

We are on the highway to Hell – but will there be sufficient parking when we get there?

December 21st, 2012

Planners have faced a lot of criticism recently for holding up development and failing to recognise the realities of the economic crisis on the property sector. Some of this criticism is well founded. There are still far too many local authority dinosaurs out there.

The reality is however that much of the delay and frustration caused to developers these days comes not from planners but the consultees to whom the local authorities turn for comments on new applications. Firstly, there are those all powerful quangos such as the Environment Agency, Highway Agency and CADW who quite frankly aren’t in the least bit interested in economic development and turning planning applications around quickly. In the spectrum of slowing development, these are truly the ceramic brakes of the bunch – so much so that they deserve their own blog article in the new year.

Today however our musings centre on probably the most frustrating of all consultees – the highway development control officer. In our congested nation traffic chaos is the fear of all local councillors, and so the views of the highway officer is pretty central to most applications.

Highway development control officers know the power they have over planners and committees. A jab of PICADY, a left hook of ARCADY and an uppercut of TRICS sends most committees running to the hills to escape the Mayan-esque prophecies of terminal gridlock and being trapped into doing perpetual circuits of a supermarket car park looking for a parking space.

As far as consultees go, when these chaps (and unfortunately they are mainly chaps) enter the ring that is the committee room, they are Mike Tyson. With a beard and a penchant for fluorescent jackets, obviously. The planning officer doesn’t stand a chance. Given just how important these demi-gods are to the planning process, one would have thought they have a clearly defined role in statute, regulations, or at least some form of policy, somewhere. It appears not.

As a consequence, while planners have strict statutory periods in which to determine planning applications (compliance with which can influence the grant that their department secures) highways officers are not subject to any particular obligation to respond, or to respond in a timely manner to any application. While planners are required to take full account of the overall objectives of national policy to support economic development and to take a pragmatic approach in balancing economic, social and environmental issues, with rare exception, highway officers have a book of manuals and parking standards that must be complied with rigidly, come what may.

Perhaps worst of all is that while planners are obliged to consider the scheme that is presented to them, for some reason even when presented with technically acceptable highway solutions, highways officers appear often to want to substitute their own ideas, without any regard or understanding of the developer’s constraints. The result is fantastic situations where applications are delayed by months while highway officers procrastinate; where developments are forced to provide car parking that they don’t need; and where economic development creating new jobs is frustrated because the technically acceptable highway solution is not the preferred one of the officer involved.

The worst thing of all is that there isn’t much that an applicant can do about any of this. Appeal takes time and is costly, and cost isn’t something anyone wants at this moment in the economic cycle.
This is hardly an acceptable arrangement. For years Government has said it would try and formalise the roles and responsibilities of consultees such as this, and indeed WG is apparently considering such issues in the new Planning Bill for Wales. In the meantime, all we can really do therefore is smile, perhaps pass a nice word about the officer’s fluorescent jacket and hope for the best.