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'A complete waste of time': your reaction to outline planning shake-up

The government’s decision to abolish ‘burdensome’ detail layout and scale in outline planning applications has been met with scepticism by the profession

The current rules will come into force on 31 January 2013 - click here to see The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) (Amendment No. 3) Order 2012.

Shahriar Nasser, director, Belsize Architects:
‘We’re all for streamlining planning information requirements, but I’m unsure that this proposal benefits anyone. Scale and layout are fundamental issues, and without establishing them at this stage it is difficult for planning authorities to give any useful indication of what may, or may not, be acceptable later on. Delaying consideration of scale and layout may render the outline planning result a complete waste of time, money and effort for architects, developers and clients. We need smarter approaches to eliminating unnecessary elements of bureaucracy, rather than hacking at core elements of the decision-making process.’

Jeff Wall, director, tp bennetts (via linkedin)
‘The government’s approach to planning recently has been reprehensible and allied to its denigration of planning, simply offensive. The initiative on broadening permitted development on residential work is a case in point and does not stand up to scrutiny: also there is a tacit acceptance of harm in the proposals, by the fact of government excluding conservation areas from those relaxations.

The government’s approach to planning recently has been reprehensible

The thrust of much policy over the last decade or so has been geared to giving greater certainty to the planning process, not greater crudity.’

John McCart, principal at John McCart Architect
‘This approach will only lead to a further erosion of the quality of applications. However, I can see it working if allied with a rigorous approach at local authority level to request layout and scale information as part of the pre-application process, if it is deemed necessary. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.’

Peter Stewart of PSPCA, Architecture and planning consultant
‘[The moves] is unlikely to make much difference to larger schemes where there is a requirement to have an Environmental Statement, which comes under separate legislation….for schemes below that threshold, it could be back to the old days of the ‘red line’ outline application which tells you very little about what is proposed other than use and floor area.  The difficulty I foresee is in local consultation – expectations of engagement have ramped up considerably over last few years while the current system has been around and ‘local people’ are likely to have the same problem as environmental assessors, ie ‘we can’t comment if you can’t tell us what you’re going to build, so you shouldn’t be getting permission.’  The bureaucrat’s answer is that all that can happen at the next stage - reserved matters - and schemes can be turned down at that stage if unacceptable.  This however hardly ever happens, and the argument is exposed as specious by the attitude of lenders who will regard an outline consent as ‘currency’ to almost the same extent as detailed consents.’   

Rab Bennetts, co-founder of Bennetts Associates
‘As with localism in general, it all depends on how this is interpreted by the local planning authority. It could be as complex or as simple as they see fit.  At best, an outline consent should determine land uses where the design is not critical; at worst, Outline Consent will require massing, bulk and access for an actual proposal, which amounts to a lot of work.  Presumably, for any areas where design is a sensitive issue, for example: conservation areas and urban proposals generally, outline consent will continue to be unacceptable in principle.  From our experience this applies to the great majority of planning applications anyway.’

Chris Brown of developer Igloo
‘[This is ] not big news for us. Our schemes tend to be large, so we will do all the urban design in partnership with the local community at outline stage in any event to reduce future uncertainty and ensure quality.
‘The bigger issue is the extent and cost of the supporting information required by planning authorities. Large schemes regularly cost £1 million plus in fees at outline stage. Much of the work is difficult for the decision makers and those affected to question and of limited impact on the decision. And similar lists of information are required for smaller schemes. Simplifying this should always have been the focus of government action in this area. 
‘Most people just want a really good idea of what the buildings will look like and what they will be used for.’ 

Ed Park of Leeds-based ParkDesigned
‘Good for developers overall, mixed news for Architects. A simpler route might may lead to more development. But there is likely to be a potential loss of earnings for architects.’

Gabrielle Omar, of The Apprentice and Lolli & Square
‘This [change] will initially mean this process will be slightly more cost effective for the developer. However they risk a more hurried and abrupt response from the planners on whether a development can go ahead or not without being fed the full facts of the proposal. I’m not sure how the planners will be able to make a valued judgement on whether a scheme should go ahead without such important details such as the layout and scale information.  This amendment may make the outline planning a quicker process, but for the design quality to be maintained, this just means that the weight is now more heavily put on the full/detailed planning aspect of the building process.’ 

Peter Gamble, partner, Holder Mathias: I see this as a welcome move towards reinstating a more cost effective means of establishing whether particular development proposals would be acceptable in principle. However I think that the inertia of the existing systems and attitudes within local authority planning departments will mean that it will be a long time before we see any tangible impact. Even then it seems unlikely that outline applications for larger scale developments will be significantly streamlined by this change. Planning officers are likely to continue to seek what they consider to be sufficiently detailed information to make their recommendations, and judgment on this issue appears to rest with them.

Brian Waters, principal of BWCP and National Planning Forum chair: The order doesn’t mean that the scale of the site (ie its size/shape) or the proposed layout of development can be omitted from an outline application.  What it does mean is that an outline application will now be what it says – an indication in outline of proposed development which may have details of the layout and scale such as the height and bulk of any proposed buildings reserved for later consideration.

The order allows for specific details of the application to be reserved for subsequent approval by the local planning authority at a later stage (“reserved matters”)…  the application must [still] state the approximate location of buildings, routes and open spaces and where scale is a reserved matter; the application must state the upper and lower limit for the height, width and length of each building. The effect of the amendment is to remove the requirement to provide these details at the outline stage where layout and scale have been reserved – DCLG Explanatory Note

For architects and clients this means that the quality of development should be improved because the architect won’t be locked in to an ill-considered layout produced as the result of just having to show something at outline stage. And it should push development forward as it will now be possible to obtain outline approval without the need to spend large sums producing unnecessary information, so encouraging more outline submissions and earlier commitment from clients.

Rather than implying less paid work, this is a chance to get back to the proper meaning of an outline application but architects should take advantage of the change to encourage clients to bring forward or revive projects.

Chris Williamson of Weston Williamson: Requiring less information for Outline Applications is sensible as long as it doesn’t spread to Full Applications. We shouldn’t be too concerned about losing work but very concerned about losing quality.

Craig Casci, director, Grid Architects: Wave after wave of deregulation fodder is coming through from central government as the only thing they can think of to stimulate growth - take away the shackles and unfetter the capitalists.  This is of course still at odds to their other views on planning investment and localism except that it does have an ideological approach to apparently not spending (or is that investing) in government services.

The simplification to outline applications only refers to mandatory requirements for content. The local authority can still ask for greater content and more than likely will but there are lots of mandatory requirements on detailed applications that we usually ignore these days (For example, why do all elevations have to be at a scale of 1:200?).

The current principle on outline applications is to back up or prove the suitability of an outline application by providing a series of framework drawings that show what is actually fixed ( for example,  more fixity equals more certainty and less fixity equals more flexibility ).  What costs time and money is the design codes - quasi-legal documents which equal quality - and the illustrative layouts (the better part of a detailed application). In our Dartford application we submitted hundreds of drawings and got full support from the local authority and a timely consent for 1,000 residential units.  The landowners sold the land to a housebuilder. As all parties were happy what would have been the benefit of doing less work. In whose interest is it not to do this? Save money and we may raise suspicion which will take more time.

I don’t expect local authorities to ask for less information than they’ve come accustomed to

It seems only reasonable however that commercial schemes can reduce the information they will submit on layout and design.  But they will still have to discuss transport or any other impacts of the developments and that is unlikely to change.  On residential there are many, many more considerations and the current requirements of a large outline application are based generally on residential settlements. In summary – I don’t expect Local Authorities to ask for less information than they have now come accustomed to.

Adam Thornton, director, 5Plus Architects: Scale information can be a box ticking exercise, particularly with large outline applications.  Providing consideration to the maximum length and width of buildings can be meaningless and generic. Houses for example tend to have a minimum width of 4.5 metres and a maximum length of 16 metres to provide flexibility. Anything that reduces the amount of information needed for an outline application and speeds up the process is a good thing.

Layout can also be distracting, when applying for ‘access only’ the key is to discuss the principle of the changes in use. Yes, a layout can help to understand how the quantum can fit on the site, but can be very distracting too. Layout can be subjective, and it’s funny how the focus of planning and consultation meetings can revolve around a layout that is not being approved.

What about the sense of place? The important principles to enshrine in an outline application or masterplan framework do not revolve around scale and layout. Scale and layout information are a by-product of good design. What is important is a sense of place, permeability, positive spaces between buildings; in larger masterplans a sense of identity across the scheme with differing characters is vital, but not picked up simply by scale and layout. The intellectual work and design iteration associated with creating a legible place where people want to live and work still needs to be done whether or not these elements of submitted information are required.

What about ‘reserved matters’ applications? Isn’t it ironic that when not applying for ‘layout’ and ‘scale’ you still need to submit information on ‘layout’ and ‘scale’. Surely this is what the reserved matters application is for?

Dieter Gockmann, director, EPR Architects: Will this mean less paid work for architects doing outline planning applications? The unfortunate reality is that developers increasingly expect architects to share the risk of development, particularly at the outset of a project and prior to securing any form of planning consent for a development. This often means architects are required to provide pre-planning stage services speculatively on the basis that their costs will be recouped through a planning success fee or at the later stages of a project’s delivery. In light of this current economic pressure anything that improves the chances of gaining a speedy planning consent and/or reduces the workload required to secure outline consent can only be a good thing for architects. In spite of the changes to the level of detail required to obtain outline planning, developers will still need to ensure redevelopment proposals are viable which will still require the expertise that architects are best placed to provide. Cutting costs by not employing an architect to obtain quick outline consent for a development that turns out to be unviable would be a false economy which I would hope most developers are wise enough to avoid.

Will it have an impact on the quality of development? The proposals have the potential to improve the quality of development because architects will have greater flexibility to modify and refine the scale and layout of a development at the detailed planning stage. Under the current system too many detailed design decisions have to be made prematurely at outline planning stage, which then prejudice or undermine the quality of the detailed design because applying for amendments to the outline consent is too costly or time consuming.

Freeing up local planning authorities’ resources will hopefully have a positive impact on the resources available for planners to deal with detailed planning applications which should have a positive impact on the quality of developments in the long term.

Will it be enough to help push development forward? Anything that reduces the financial risk and burden associated with applying for and negotiating outline planning permission has the potential to unlock development sites, particularly those where the economic viability of a development may be border line. Development funding is more dependent than ever on de-risking investment, anything that helps to minimise the risks inherent in the development process, particularly at the planning stage, has the potential to release funding and stimulate development.

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • Back to the good old days of the red edge. This establishes the principle of a certain land use. All details can still be controlled and the planners can always request an indicative layout (i.e., not a formal layout) to make sure a land use can be accommodated.

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