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technical & practice - Despite the obvious and vital need for planning simplification, the system's workings don't appear to be getting any clearer

Simplification of the planning system is anything but simple. The ODPM has just released for consultation the fruits of a two-year study by Halcrow entitled Unification of Consent Regimes 1. A successful outcome will be to reduce the duplications involved in making applications for planning permission, conservation area consent and listed building consent - described as the 'core' regimes - into one form.

The Halcrow study is a response to concerns that the separate consent regimes currently in operation 'are considered by some to duplicate each other, and the different arrangements that apply to each are seen as confusing, unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming for all concerned'.

Table 1 sets out the consultant's categorisation of the regimes it considered. Architects' pulses will race to see the Building Regulations lumped into the second category. A single form may be a hope too far but an end to the current disjuncture between planning and the regs is a long time coming. Having raised our hopes, the study explains why it has taken so long to come up with a de minimus recommendation. The existing situation had to be assessed, the legal framework had to be reviewed and international systems had to be studied.

Halcrow states that 'the study carried this work forward to develop a limited number of models for alternative forms of unified regime [see table 2], reviewing and assessing these options in turn against agreed key criteria'. Here things become a little rhetorical and, unfortunately, bear little fruit in the consultant's recommendations.

Take issue The principal issues to emerge were the need for new primary legislation, decision-making by different government departments and the inability to assess the cost implications of changes.

Interestingly, while any unified system would allow all material considerations to be assessed together, so aiding transparency, there is concern that material considerations that are currently isolated within one regime would be outweighed by those from another regime.

More positively, the study concluded that 'retention of the conservation area consent regime appears to be outweighed by the disadvantages'. It argues that a unification of conservation area consent and planning permission need not erode the special controls over demolition in conservation areas.

Disappointingly, but predictably, it says: 'Complex procedural problems arise from amalgamating Building Regulations with the planning regimes.' There are complex legal and practical considerations, so it concludes that the regs shouldn't form part of a unified system, 'but that this could be reviewed at a later date' - or: nice idea but too much bother for now.

So the final recommendation is merely to unify scheduled monument consent with listed building consent (already foreshadowed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and then with the other 'core' planning regimes of planning and conservation area consent. Legislation will be needed and the process is described as 'step-by-step' - a shuffle towards meeting 'the consensus that there already is within government, the public, business and the professions, that some form of streamlining and unification of the consent regimes would result in achieving better quality and quicker decisions'. But actually, it doesn't represent a great stride towards these important goals.

Viability and appeals Just to help clarify matters, planning minister Keith Hill has reminded MPs that all planning appeals are determined on their merits and an 'applicant's financial viability is not normally a planning consideration'.

However, the minister has explained in a written answer that 'the viability of an existing or proposed enterprise may be a relevant consideration in some cases' (Hansard, 28 June). All clear now?

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen partnership. Visit www. bwcp. co. uk

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