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Breaking the logjam

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The recent Planning Green Paper may begin to challenge applicant clients taking their architects' time for granted

'Planners and architects belong together but are divided by the development control process. The two professions share many common objectives and occupations and there are a large numbers of planner-architects and architect-planners.

'Both professions are concerned about the design and quality of our surroundings and both professions are urban designers and masterplanners. But, for all this, these professions are too often set at one another's throats by the planning system.' So writes Robert Adam in this month's Planning in London (see www. planning inlondon. com), explaining the new RIBA guidance on making planning applications.

When problems are aired about bad planning practice, they are often countered by accounts of bad architectural practice. Both undoubtedly occur, and so to help break the logjam, the RIBA has decided to make a positive gesture to help solve the problem, Adam says.

Don't be complacent

The green papers on the reform of the planning system published last year put the spotlight on poor planning performance by authorities.

They have the fingerprints of the CBI and the Treasury all over them.

Not without justification maybe, but architects and their applicant clients should not sit back complacently waiting for logs to unjam and decisions to bounce back.

Adam is right that there is bad architectural practice. Many applications by architects are poorly considered, poorly supported in terms of policy and impact analysis, and even poorly presented. The Green Paper makes play of the need for better resources in planning authorities, but inadequate applications are also a cause of delays in the approvals system.

Clients are often culpable, scrimping on the fees and the backup team of consultants needed. 'Get the permission and I'll give you the job!' they say.

It's about time that the recommended fee scales recognised the real value and importance of RIBA stages A and B - equal at least to stage C in most projects. So why are they always presented, or viewed, as an afterthought? Challenging this should be an immediate response from the profession.

The Green Paper proposals will force this issue since they place tough new obligations on applicants. These result partly from a new emphasis on urban designs and masterplans which will replace the present local development plans.

Key areas within the local authority boundary will be governed by action plans which are described in the Green Paper as: area masterplans 'covering design, layout and location'; neighbourhood and village plans detailing 'the design standards to be applied'; design statements; and site development briefs.

The Green Paper even proposes to do away with outline planning consents because 'all too often, local authorities [LPAs] receive an application of outline permission but with no guarantee that the concept approved will actually be delivered'.

Under the new system, an LPA would give the developer a certificate 'for a defined period to work up a detailed scheme against parameters . . . agreed with the local authority. . .

Compliance with the certificate's requirements would weigh heavily in the final determination of planning consent'.

The challenge ahead

Mike Gwilliam, director of planning and transport at the South East Regional Assembly, welcomed the challenge to developers to create masterplans for the sites they are promoting. He says: 'It will oblige the developer to employ good designers to stand any chance of getting a major proposal adopted, and thus bring into the planning system those design skills which are not existent in the town halls.

'It's a clever move by the government because the resource will come from the developer's appointment of consultants.' Gwilliam predicts rich pickings for consultants with the right skills.

Andy Rogers, ACA president, is more sceptical. He comments: 'Community strategies backed up by local development frameworks and statements of community involvement are to replace the structure/local plans and UDPs, while regional planning guidance is renamed regional spatial strategy. More a question of rearranging the deckchairs - and calling them sun-loungers.'

However, the subtext by which community involvement is diverted from committees and county councils, through the new local strategic partnerships, to 'continuously updated' community strategies, is a clever idea and might just work, he says.

A relaxing future

Applicants will take on responsibility for community consultation and will have to report the outcome in support of their proposals, so the skills of the architect and the demonstration of his designs and their rationale will be given a higher priority.

Those who have experience of the new appeal inquiry rules will understand the implications for their work of the Green Paper proposals for delivery contracts. These are contracts in which local authorities and developers agree a target date for determining a planning application.

Each party becomes jointly responsible for achieving it.

Theoretically, architects can be more relaxed in future when they are on the receiving end of claims for extensions of time as a result of late information from planners.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. E-mail brian@ bwcp. co. uk

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