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More control, less development

Three new consultation papers aim to tighten the rules on planning applications, but is the increase in content justified?

Planning authorities are coming under pressure from many quarters just now. The most obvious is the increasing numbers of applications being made and the acute demand to meet performance targets and secure delivery-grant money. The big jump in fees from 1 April may moderate the former for a while, and the Audit Commission's checks and the introduction of new criteria such as appeal failure rates should moderate the inevitable cheating.

Tightening up the rules calls for a consistent basis for the process and assessment of applications, and this is the subject of three new consultation papers, all of which provide valuable guidance for architects and their clients on how best to prepare applications. These are Changes to the Development Control System, Best Practice Guidance on the Validation of Planning Applications and a consultation paper for the introduction of a standard application form for England. All three are available from the ODPM website. * Additional pressures include a growing requirement for community involvement and the consequent need to demonstrate 'soundness', which I discussed last month (AJ 31.3.05), and the related propensity for Statutory Review challenges where the process may not have been properly managed.

This last one is causing officers to demand the submission of all manner of supporting information, assessments and statements 'just in case'.

The Best Practice Guidance paper is aimed squarely at local authorities and sets out the need for checklists - both compulsory and for additional information - elaborated in the validation paper (see table). As things stand, the probability is that authorities will tend to demand more (rather than the minimum actually required), thus undermining ministers' stated intention of simplifying and speeding up the system.

The guidance is to be welcomed for seeking to make applications less opaque and more consistent. In doing so, however, it has conflated two distinct regulations under the Town and Country Planning (Applications) Regulations 1988, which have different purposes. These are:

l (Regulation 3) validation - whether an application is capable of being considered; and l (Regulation 4) a subsequent stage of requiring further information before determining it.

The distinction is that the application must comply with Regulation 3 if it is to be registered at all. The time period from application to decision begins when the mandatory requirement has been met, hopefully the day following its receipt. It is predominantly the applicant's view of what is required to describe the development that applies here, on the assumption that he knows what he wants to do.

This first stage may safely be considered by normally supervised support staff, unlike the Regulation 4 material, which should involve the judgement of professional planners (apart from that for straightforward householder applications).

Further information under Regulation 4 may be sought as a direction, and that should be part of the normal dialogue with council planners, since they may otherwise ask for material that does not apply to the particular case. Normally, the applicant can be expected to comply with reasonable requests, but, of course, may appeal if the requests are unreasonable.

It may be that agreement can be reached on the scope of applications in pre-application discussions, in which case the requirements of both Regulations 3 and 4 may be combined, otherwise the applicant is entitled to wait for Regulation 3 validation before further material is provided.

A prudent applicant will have considered likely further particulars before the application is made at all.

To cite just one example of the contradictions, the checklists in the guidance say that the correct fee has to be paid before an application is valid; in fact, the regulation requires it to be paid before the application is determined. Given the lack of notice given for the new fee scales and the complexity of the fee regulations, this misinterpretation is unforgivable.

For example, one of my current projects, being a large mixed development, requires two maximum fees under the regulations, previously amounting to £22,000 but now carrying a charge of £100,000 - simply because the complex fees regulations agreement meant that the whole fee was not agreed and paid until many months after acceptance as a valid application.

Validity is but one of the issues addressed in the second consultation paper, Changes to the Development Control System. This covers further provisions on the development control measures contained in Part 4 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. This new paper covers the following topics:

l local development orders;

l outline planning permission, reserved matters and design and access statements;

l electronic payment of fees;

l decision periods for major applications; and l validity.

The proposal for design and access statements for specified applications (notably for outline applications where access and design are fundamental as opposed to desirable, since they determine a future site capacity greater than comparable neighbours) does offer a sensible solution to the competing freedoms of authorities and applicants. A further consultation paper on the criteria for statutory consultees will be published in the coming months.

I urge readers to look at these papers, which suggest a significant and not always justified increase in the content of planning application submissions, and to respond to the consultation opportunities.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen partnership. Visit www. bwcp. co. uk. The input of planning consultant Drummond Robson is acknowledged

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