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A Conservative fix for a ‘broken’ system

Brian Waters considers the Conservative Party’s green paper on planning, published last week and deciphers what it will mean for architects if the party wins the next general election

The Conservative Party’s ‘Open Source Planning’ policy green paper calls for a ‘radical reboot’ of the ‘broken’ planning system. Despite being painfully naive (I doubt any of the authors have ever prepared or processed a planning application), the paper is full of interesting proposals, some of which could, given time, produce improvements to the planning process and perhaps even to outcomes.

The paper’s core proposal is what is called ‘open source’ planning. The Conservatives describe this as: ‘A planning system where there is a basic national framework of planning priorities and policies, within which local people and their accountable local governments can produce their own distinctive local policies to create communities which are sustainable, attractive and good to live in.’he paper has a recurring emphasis on design,

There is a recurring emphasis on design but I fear this means a mixture of prescription, guidelines, local design standards

Alongside its ‘localism’ agenda, the paper has a recurring emphasis on design, but I fear this means a mixture of prescription, guidelines, local design standards, design by community charrette and new barriers to imaginative development, unless embedded in the local plan. The paper says: ‘We expect local authorities to set out architectural and design standards.’ These are likely to be lowest common denominator codes, especially since, as RIBA president Ruth Reed has pointed out, local authorities would not have the skills and resources to do otherwise. Intriguingly, design review gets no mention at all – neither CABE, nor at local level.

Our planning system is unusual in that it is essentially discretionary – anything goes if it can jump all the hurdles. Most countries work to rigid codes that preclude exceptions. The Conservative policy calls for plans to be generated locally, meaning through neighbourhoods, parishes or estates. To work, these would have to be unambiguous and up-to-date, as well as consistent with national streamlined policies – although the Tories don’t explain how they would resource this.

The concept is enforced by seeking to emasculate the appeal system – the only bit that currently works – so permitted schemes that do not comply with the plan can be appealed by third parties. This means committees would be reluctant to approve them in the first place. Third parties, like much else, are not defined, but the paper does clarify that there would be a system to filter out frivolous appeals.

Developers are understandably horrified at this idea, which has been firmly rejected in the recent past

Developers are understandably horrified at this idea, which has been firmly rejected in the recent past. However, Andrew Rogers, chairman of the Association of Consultant Architects planning advisory group, says: ‘Any consultant worth his salt will always be able to argue on appeal that the refused (or approved) scheme does (or does not) comply with at least part, if not all, of the neighbourhood plan/unitary development plan/national policy, meaning that appeals will, in my view, continue as they do now.’

On the plus side, the paper creates a huge opportunity for architects to take a more commanding role in development. The so-called ‘open source’ approach would see greater scope for deemed permissions. These are described as ‘automatic permissions where sustainable development meets no objection from a significant majority of immediate neighbours’. It would generally be unlawful for an authority to refuse permission if it conforms to the local plan and is ‘sustainable’.

The paper creates a huge opportunity for architects to take a more commanding role

Architects would find themselves with an enhanced role in pre-consultation, with the aim of achieving and demonstrating the explicit support of the majority of neighbours, so that the client gets a quicker, cheaper go-ahead. Compliance would have to be certified by the architect, and would be a real value-added service. Add to this the current movement towards integrating building and planning control and architects would quickly be in a position to regain lost ground, particularly if the Conservatives introduce policies ‘designed to bring competition
to public service provision’, as they promise. That would really transform the culture of planning.

Adding ‘automatic’ approvals, as the paper suggests, may reduce the workload of planning departments but would increase that of architects. However, to reach the point where open source planning is legislated for and new-style local plans are in place would take at least two terms of Conservative government. Expect the disjointed incrementalism of the English planning system to be with us a while longer.

Brian Waters is president of the Association of Consultant Architects and vice chairman (professions) of the National Planning Forum

Tory plans for a new planning system

Key points in the Conservatives’ long awaited Planning Green Paper, providing radical new ideas for the planning system.

• “A Truly Local Plan” - with the removal of regional government, far more weight would be put on the Local Development Plan and the need for it to be up-to-date.

• Flexibility of Use Classes - total flexibility within uses defined by the Local Plan in specific areas: could this be an echo of the Enterprise Zones of the 1980s? This has the potential to create all sorts of opportunities.

• Incentives for Development - match funding for affordable homes and new house building plus encouragement for developers to provide voluntary compensation for immediate neighbours in return for their support.

• National Planning Framework - a new overarching planning framework (voted on by both Houses of Parliament), setting out economic and environmental priorities. Streamlining existing national policy and dispensing with some PPSs.

• Needs and Competition Testing for Retail- despite the very recent publication of PPS4, the Conservatives would re-adopt the ‘needs test’.

• Third Party Appeal - residents as well as developers would have the right to appeal but the grounds for appeal would be limited to just two categories: 1. following procedures incorrectly, 2. contravention of the Local Plan.

• ‘Major Infrastructure Unit’ to Replace the IPC- major linear infrastructure projects would be approved through hybrid or private Parliamentary Bills. The MIU would assess all other major infrastructure projects through planning inquires with the Secretary of State making the final decision rather than the unelected IPC.

• New tariff systems to replace CIL - set locally and applied to all residential and non-residential development at graded rates (dependent on size), a percentage of which would be passed down to the local community.

source: Drivers Jonas

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