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Quantity or quality?

The latest Planning Policy Statement is more about covering the government's back than providing a skeleton framework

'The presumption is that the plan is sound unless it is shown to be otherwise as a result of evidence brought to the examination.' This is the central mantra of the new Local Development Framework system (LDF), brought in by the Planning Act 2004 and set out in Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 12 and its companion guide, Creating Local Development Frameworks.

1As the ODPM's John Hack advises anyone keen enough to attend the breakfast briefings held around the country courtesy of the Town and Country Planning Association 2 (TCPA): 'Remember this is a new [local planning] system - don't think old!' So what are the new and the key issues for architects and their clients?

First, bear in mind that architects are almost invisible and developers are somewhere in the list of players called 'stakeholders'. So PPS 12 and related guidance is addressed mainly to the authorities that have to compile the new Framework Documents, and the process is focused on the public inquiries - sorry, independent examinations - to be conducted by the Planning Inspectorate from the end of the year. Current policies will remain in force for three years, and only in exceptional circumstances after that.

Rather than having voluminous and detailed development plans - Unitary Development Plans (UDPs) etc - to refer to, we will have to check a portfolio of Local Development Documents, all of which are supposed to relate to Core Strategies.

These in turn have to be compliant with Regional Spatial Strategies and with national policies (PPSs). Get the idea? The bundle of new document names is intended to shake us out of the old system and into the new. Just for encouragement, one Greater London Authority officer has assessed that the present 32 London UDPs could end up being replaced by over 700 Framework Documents.

What's in store?

PPS 12 sets out nine tests of 'soundness', and regional government offices have a role in checking them before independent examinations go ahead.

LDFs are not the development control plans we are used to, but are to operate at a more strategic, spatialpolicy level. They can be revised continuously and, although they have to be copied to the secretary of state, who can intervene, the 'default position' will be to approve such updates.

Inspectors will be required to assess the overall soundness of submitted Development Plan Documents (DPDs), rather than simply considering objections as they do now. Examinations will be more informal and much shorter, with representations generally being grouped by the tests and often dealt with by round-table discussion, though issues may be treated formally where the inspector considers it prudent to cross-examine. The inspector has the power to determine how she or he conducts the inquiry, and written representations will be preferred.

An important change is that the inspector's report is to be binding on the planning authority. This may be good, but it has the powerful effect of excluding late changes or submissions that have not been assessed thoroughly and demonstrably by consultation, sustainability assessments and other testing requirements.

Enlightened landowners and developers have employed consultants to monitor Local Plan policy reviews and have made representations at plan inquiries, often in the form of site-specific objections. Even this level of involvement in plan-making will often not be sufficient now. Those wishing to make representations will have to relate them to the tests for soundness scheduled in Annex B of PPS 12. These fall into three groups:

l procedural tests, such as compliance with the Statement of Community Involvement (itself a document subject to similar tests for soundness) and sustainability appraisals;

l conformity tests, including consistency with national policies and general conformity with the regional spatial development strategy or the London Plan, and having regard to the authority's community strategy;

l coherence, consistency and effectiveness tests, including coherence with neighbouring DPDs, appropriateness in all the circumstances, having considered relevant alternatives and founded on a robust and credible evidence base, and with clear mechanisms for implementation and monitoring.

You can see how tricky it will be for a landowner to wake up late in the game and want to file an objection to plan policies that prejudice his interest.

Interestingly, the same is likely to apply to community interests that want to lobby against something they had not anticipated when first consulted. It will be even more difficult for inspectors over the next three years, as there will be so many gaps in the framework pattern and the inspectorate is under pressure to field sufficient numbers of experienced inspectors, while also trying to put the appeals system back on the rails.

Meanwhile, we have our work cut out trying to assess how the new game will affect our clients in time to be able to advise them how to participate in it most effectively. If, like me, you need all the shortcuts you can find, I suggest you look at the Planning Inspectorate's consultation document of February 2005, A Framework for Assessing Soundness and Focusing Representations on Statements of Community Involvement;

3 chapter three of PPS 12; and chapter seven of Creating Local Development Frameworks.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Visit www.

bwcp. co. uk

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