Planning portal: Once a new layer of reporting has been added, any attempt to take it away is presented as a backward step, says Robert Adam
All those who have been ‘customers’ of planning for any time are painfully aware of the decades of creeping bureaucracy, increased documentation, extended timescales and a prevailing negativity. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was an excellent attempt to simplify the planning process and make it more positive. Two years later, has it worked?
The NPPF is the rule book for a planning system that is populated by decent people who have to do a difficult job. But they are also part of a culture where individuals often wield considerable power over the property rights of landowners, and operate within an atmosphere of political and social hostility to development. For applicants this is perceived an overweening negativity. Can this be changed?
There are two developments in the process that work against everything that the NPPF set out to achieve: increases in the documentary requirements and an added layer in the application process.
There was a time when a planning application was a form and a set of drawings. These are a distant memory as more information requirements have been progressively added, such as the Design and Access Statement. These have become major publications, with reports, diagrams and statements often filled with totally meaningless phrases like ‘high-quality proposals’, ‘responding to the spirit of the place’ and so on. Add to this the full reporting required for any listed building or conservation area, prepared by report-writers to be read by other report writers who write another report.
Most pernicious of all are the Parameter Plan and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for larger developments. An EIA has to have Parameter Plans which cover things like building heights, street layout and green infrastructure all before you have started to design anything in detail. And woe betides any later deviation as it will trigger another hugely expensive EIA and jeopardise the whole development.
Many of the statutory recipients of these and many other reports are single-interest bureaucracies. If your remit is the protection of newts, you have no interest in the benefits of development. Delays are of no consequence and there can never be enough information. Once a new layer of reporting has been added, any attempt to take it away is presented as a backward step, reducing the ‘quality’ of decision-making.
A major obstacle has been introduced to slow the whole process down without actually appearing to do so: pre-application consultations. These money-making procedures replace the old system when public servants provided advice to the people who paid their wages. Now, often for substantial sums, the near-equivalent of a full application can be requested so that a planner or group of planners can provide advice. There is no time limit and no restraint on what can be said. Once something negative is in the report, however opinionated and far from the legal powers of the system, it is on the record. There are response waiting times of six months plus and we receive nothing more than photocopies of published planning policies. All the reports carry the caveat that this is only advice and the final decision may differ. Now the best pre-application consultation can be an application; at least there is a time limit and any reasons for refusal would have to stand up to an appeal.
As time goes on, we can expect explanatory and guidance documents to be added to the simple statements in the NPPF. English Heritage has already started to try and ‘clarify’ aspects. Unless this creeping process is actively checked, we will end up with a more, not a less, complex system than the one the NPPF was intended to replace.
Robert Adam, director, Adam Architecture