On the day of the publication of the White Paper 'Planning for a Sustainable Future' (see www. communities. gov. uk) in May, The Times congratulated the makers of Mars Bars for the perfect corporate apology: 'We listened, we got it wrong, we are fixing it'. This would have been a better introduction to the paper than the pervading tone of complacency, which was reinforced by Ruth Kelly's assertion on its launch: 'The planning system has improved significantly since 1997.'
It has taken 10 years for the government to get serious about implementing its 1997 paper 'Modernising Planning'.
This time, it means business. In summary, the measures set out in a White Paper (subject to consultation) are designed to:
fast-track major infrastructure projects;
simplify the regime for local householder applications;
streamline new local plan procedures;
improve the handling of major planning applications;
speed up appeals;
reduce the schemes 'called in' by the Secretary of State;
strengthen policy on climate change;
change planning fees;
clarify national policy guidance;
introduce a new test to protect town centres.
The establishment of an independent Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) to decide on major projects is a slow response to the longrunning Terminal 5 inquiry - its planning application was made in 1998. The commission will have a wide remit, covering motorways, energy and airports and will actually issue consent.
Many of the Barker Review's recommendations are likely to be adopted. The procedures for Framework Plans in the 2004 Act are to be streamlined, but we face several years of policy confusion at the local level. A bundle of 'daughter' papers have been published, which are out for consultation. Architects should give them close attention for it is here that most of the specific changes which affect our clients and practice are to be found.
For example, a paper on fees includes a proposal to remove the £50,000 cap on planning application fees and to raise all but the smallest by 25 per cent from April next year.
The paper is clearer on proposals to speed up the householder appeals system.
These make good sense though much has to change to make their targets credible.
'Planning Performance Agreements' can be negotiated for major applications, establishing a fixed timetable for processing. For these to be effective, architects and their clients must ensure their thorough preparation, including preapplication consultations.
The General Permitted Development Order as it affects householder developments, such as extensions and basements, is to be based on impacts rather than measured volumes. The consultation paper and related report should be scrutinised by architects. They show a naivety that needs to be addressed. The dimensional rules should be limited to 'deemed to satisfy' guidance rather than cast as rigid criteria as at present.
Section 9(e) discusses streamlining information requirements. It promises revised guidance 'in the Summer' on determining the validity of applications. 'Later in 2007, we will start a further review with the objective of reducing information requirements.'
The Association of Consultant Architects considers this to be unacceptable. Why confuse and elaborate the present system which is clear and, when respected, effective? Why not suspend these unhelpful changes and carry out the review first?
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership and director of planning at HTA