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The Welsh planning system – Playing the fiddle while the Welsh economy burns?

February 23rd, 2021

It has been apparent for some time that while the Government in England has been attempting to support the development industry and encourage new housing by making the planning system less onerous, the Welsh Government has taken an entirely different approach in the arena of planning. Adopting the strategy of Nero, they appear to have done little more than fiddle while the economy of Wales has struggled. Is that a fair analogy? Well, let’s look at how the two approaches have differed thus far.

Take permitted development rights. In 1995 Wales and England shared the same permitted development (PD) rights, as set out in the General Permitted Development Order of 1995. However since devolution, the paths of PD rights in England and Wales have diverged. It is safe to say that the divergence has happened largely as a result of changes in England.

The changes in England have been significant. Permitted development rights for dwelling have been extended; new use classes were introduced to protect public houses, resulting in consequential changes to PD rights. Greater flexibility was given to casino development and to rights for flats above shops, to extend offices and shops, to have flexible uses in town centres and to convert agricultural buildings to residential, office or commercial uses. Small click and collect facilities in car parks of shops are permitted development, as are trolley bays. Rights are in place for micro power generation and solar power generation on domestic buildings. Certain buildings may be demolished and replaced by residential development under 18 metres in height subject to conditions. Finally, the introduction of Class E, combining town centre and light commercial uses, essentially gives PD rights to change between a wide range of uses without permission. The changes are such that in 2015 England issued an entirely new General Permitted Development Order to consolidate the changes and have since had to amend that multiple times.  Not all these changes are particularly helpful and the extent of change has left many bewildered as to what requires permission and what does not.  However, the underlying aim has been to try and get development happening in England and lightening the load of overworked local authority planning departments.

So what’s the position in Wales? It would be unfair to say that nothing has changed in Wales since 1995. There have been some changes to PD rights for telecoms operators to agriculture and forestry rights, and micro generation, changes in respect of HMOs , some minor domestic PD rights changes, emergency Covid provisions in 2020, some emergency measures for Avian Flu in 2007. However, these changes have hardly been earth shattering. In fact, in 26 years the most notable change to PD rights in Wales has been the right to erect sheds and greenhouses in community growing areas. That’s it. In 26 years, the biggest change to have happened to PD rights in Wales is that Terry Walton no longer needs permission to erect a greenhouse on his allotment.

1995 was the year Jacques Chirac was elected President of France; the year when the Schengen Agreement took affect; when Nick Leeson was arrested for his role in the collapse of Barings Bank. 1995 was the year that then Prime Minister John Major was re-elected as leader of the Conservative party, Microsoft released Windows 95 and OJ Simpson was found guilty of murder. Apparently Welsh Government also thinks it was a golden year for permitted development since we still have the 1995 Order in place, with almost no revision.

It’s the same with anything actually tangible in the world of policy. The Welsh government insists on showing just how much greener it is than anyone else by re-issuing Planning Policy Wales every year with more and more text devoted to its obsession with the environmental aspects of sustainability and a Poundbury view of design and placemaking. We commented on the release of Edition 10 in 2019 that Welsh Government had opted for style over substance, with more attention to fonts and images than actual real policy to balance the environmental aspects of sustainability with the economic and social aspects. We are due Revision 11 of PPW later this month and while I would hope that given the economic situation that Covid has brought the Welsh Government has picked up the economic baton, I suspect William Hill wouldn’t offer particularly good odds for it.

We are also expecting a National plan for Wales “Future Wales” – a ‘high level’ document that is intended to replace the widely derided and universally ignored Wales Spatial Plan; but this time carrying more ‘weight’ as part of the development plan. Again (and especially given the development plan status) we would hope for something tangible and useful for day to day planning but, if the draft is anything to go by, it will be a mix of wonderful graphics, pictures of cheeseboards, cyclists, hill walkers and castles and little of actual help to bring development forward. Indeed, if it is as self indulgent and vague as the draft, all it will do is bring uncertainty and confusion to the development management process and greater burdens for overstretched Welsh planning departments.

So what about technical guidance, which in England is a living document (Planning Practice Guidance)? Well, WelshGovernment has not issued any technical guidance or update to existing guidance on any subject for 4 years. It last considered the technical advice on the economy in 2014 and on transport in 2007. Flooding technical advice was last considered in 2004, 17 years ago. Tourism was last looked at in 1997, 24 years ago. That’s only one year after Butlins at Barry Island closed.  There are chartered planners who weren’t even born when that guidance was issued.

It does feel that Welsh Government has little engagement with the real development sector and consequently considers that its planning function is limited to the occasional issue of glossy statements rather than grappling with the real issues that affect development in Wales. Indeed, it may appear on occasion that Welsh Government has little interest in anything other than social housing and is anti-development in respect of anything else.

Twenty years ago Wales was renowned for its “can do” attitude and support for development. Developers and investors were drawn across the Severn Bridge to support a growing economy by a system that appeared farm more engaging than the position then than was the case in England. Times have changed.

The BBC carried a report last week of a small developer of affordable housing in Wales being put off by “complex Welsh laws” adding significantly to the cost of development in Wales, complaining of a planning system wracked with delays and lacking the “can do” attitude seen in England (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-56100815) If this is the experience of a provider of affordable homes, how about the remainder of the development market?

If Wales is ever to recover from the economic crisis brought about by Covid and the earlier recession, It is high time that Welsh Government stopped demonising developers and discouraging development and started doing its job of engaging with the development industry to make the planning system in Wales fit for its present purpose; achieving not only the laudable environmental aspects of sustainability, but the economic and social ones. It is time to stop playing the fiddle and to use the planning system to deal with the forest fire that is the Welsh economy.

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