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Getting the best out of planners

Architects will get the best results from planning authoritiesif they know their subject and their own strengths

Conscientious architects should inform clients about key planning issues which might affect their ambitions for the project.This should happen early in the game and well before you find yourselffighting to defend the indefensible.

Do your homework Some supposed issues are not planning matters at all,or are policies inappropriate or unreasonable in application to the case;others have to be acknowledged in the formulation ofyour proposal.You should:

know your site's planning history:

ask an area-planning officer about the current position with the property;ask what the authority's policies suggest would be an appropriate development;ask about recent decisions and the reasons for them;if appropriate,arrange to look at the authority's file and make notes and copies ofdecisions,reasons,appeal decisions and so forth.Always make a note ofconversations with officers and generaly confirm them in writing,asking them to corect any misunderstandings.

know the status ofthe local development plan:the plan is most potent the day it's adopted.Check for other relevant policies and their status.

know the relevant policies and precedents:architects ignorant ofthe local-plan policies which apply to a case are nothing short ofnegligent.

Consult the plan;make notes;assess the key policies;consult officers for their views and on whether other policies have a bearing;ifout ofyour depth,put it to the client in writing that planning advice is needed and say why.

know your planning authority:

- its officers,their powers ofdelegation,its politics;

- its procedures:for consultations and negotiations and how they might handle your case - its hang-ups:politics,recent decisions,issues,policy traumas (and watch for election dates - you don't want your controversial project going to the last committee before local elections!) - its performance:your client's temper (and your fee payments) may be affected;best to set up realistic expectations and try to agree a timetable once a case officer is identified,then keep up the pressure and make sure it's not you or the client who delays things in responding to requests for information.

know your neighbours:the awkward lawyer living next door,the conservation advisory group,the area residents'forum;you or the client must do the homework and approach these people,preferably before the application goes public;

know the local media:work at swinging public opinion behind the project;advise on a proactive consultation strategy:press,leaflets,exhibitions,public meetings.It's all part of the architects'service and it's how to get results.Just ensure your fee provides for it.

The power of design I have previously suggested that the architect should act as a mediator between the often greedy or insensitive client with a single agenda and the bureaucratic and political mechanisms ofthe planning authority.I see the opportunity for architects to raise their status in this role to that we enjoy (or formerly enjoyed) in the 'quasi-judicial'role under a conventional building contract.

In our professional capacity in the handling and preparation ofplanning-application schemes and conducting negotiations with officers,we have a potent armoury ofweapons.

The first might be described as sex appeal.We have in our power the ability to seduce a committee with our presentation ofideas.But presentation is not just about seduction or persuasion.It is also about effectiveness.With CAD at our fingertips, large-format colour printing et al, the process ofconsideration and approval can be accelerated.A recent scheme for the change ofuse and conversion ofa listed building into 60 flats and 'lofts'achieved full approval and listed-building consent in under 13 weeks,including consultations with English Heritage,the traffic director for London and the neighbourhood forum.The case officer commented that this had only been possible because we had presented the very large set ofdrawings in A3 sets,colour-coded to show the proposed alterations,which had made it possible for the application to be circulated and understood immediately by all concerned.

Other weapons in the architect's armoury include pre-application consultations where the architect goes along with an open mind,having mugged up the UDP ,and intent on listening and discussing issues in general before the specifics ofa proposal.Just as authorities use policies as a means ofsaying,'No,it can't be done,'so the applicant can use them equally selectively to the opposite intent.

With urban renewal now high on the agenda,there are many occasions where the authority wants desperately for a site to be brought,at last,into development.They will tough out the terms and conditions and the architect must be on the same wavelength and speak the same language to achieve the best outcome for his client.He must equally be prepared to be tough with the client in persuading him ofthe merits ofsome policies and conditions which affect his scheme.

But the strongest weapon ofall and the one the other planning consultants can't get near - is design.One obvious example is the introduction ofwindow details to circumvent problems such as overlooking.More fundamental can be the use ofalternative sketch designs or massing exercises which show the often illogical consequences ofapplying general policies on particular sites.One example was our brieffor mixed-use live-and-work homes in a designated industrial employment area in Shoreditch where any residential use was then outlawed.

A flatted scheme previously sketched for the client had yielded a letter from the authority which listed 14 policy reasons why the proposal was unacceptable.Asked to take another look,we drew up a scheme of mews houses with workshop-offices on the ground floor and employing an 'industrial'aesthetic.This satisfied practical and environmental considerations and provided potentially more jobs than the existing industrial shed on the site.At the site meeting the officer immediately responded to the drawings:'I think I can sell this to the committee.'A City Challenge grant was offered for the scheme even before it got consent.

A well-led team approach The Development Team Approach [ DTA ] is a positive way ofthinking about large and complex projects, provided there is a very senior officer to lead on the local planning authority's side,to set the tone and direction ofthe LPA 's attitude and to consult, when necessary,the political members and prepare the way for a constructive decision.

The DTA can also force the pace on the developer,setting an example by calling for him to address key issues and to bring in necessary skills to his team early on.The DTA approach wil failif it is allowed to become a talking shop with no clear departmental leadership orif it is conducted ambivalently or ambiguously.

LPA s need to have a good earlywarning system so that appropriate cases can be considered from the applicant's first serious enquiry for the DTA treatment by a senior officer.

It would bring the process into disrepute very quicklyif applicants,having established some rapport with a case officer,then found his authority removed and a DTA roadshow imposed in his place.

I believe that the DTA ,implemented well in appropriate cases, will achieve both better and speedier decisions.The DTA encourages the developer's team and the LPA 's team to raise each others expectations and to pace each other.

Exceptionally large applications (like T5 Heathrow) have brought planning into disrepute,except with the lawyers.The new subsidiarity concept in Modernising Planning will force LPA s and the Inspectorate to focus on the local policy issues.They will have to follow the dictat ofhigherlevel policies and accept the reduced local consultation as the appropriate price ofefficiency and effectiveness.

But it will be some years coming.

When it comes to the multitude of smaller cases which tend to bog up most planning departments,the 'one-stop-shop'comes into its own as an approach.The increasing dominance ofdelegated decisions is,in my view,highly desirable and makes for a reputable development-control system and adds relevance to an upto-date development plan.

I see the appeal system as an essential safeguard against the political uncertainties ofputting anything before a committee oflaymen whose tendency is to pander to the voters in the gallery and all their worst NIMBY instincts.The threat ofan appeal should put pressure on LPA s to make speedy and efficient decisions.For this they have to be dealt with quickly, by which I mean that the Inspectorate should have a target ofmaking 80 per cent ofdecisions within eight weeks.

Fortunately things are speeding up and decisions by inspectors are being issued within a week or two ofthe hearing or inquiry.Chiefinspector Chris Shepley,writing in Planning in London,says LPA s are having trouble keeping up and allocating resources.I share his hope that this is just a catching-up problem - no excuses should be accepted!

Brian Waters is principal ofThe Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership

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