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Making plans for the future

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The government's response to consultations on its Planning Green Paper hints at major changes to the system The government wants to promote a culture change in planning: 'Too often the culture of planning is reactive and defensive. We want a culture which promotes planning as a positive tool.'

We are promised a comprehensive programme of change - a major programme of action which is prioritised and scheduled; early legislation and new regulations and a programme for revising and updating national policy guidance.

Architects will have to stay on top of the changes, at least at the procedural level and in advising clients of their implications. A statutory purpose for planning is to be introduced, 'subject to ensuring that this is done in a way that does not create additional complications for the way the system operates'.

Headlined in the press as a 'retreat', the Green Paper's suggested approval of major projects by Parliament has been replaced by an intention to replace planning policy guidance (PPGs) with national policy statements (PPSs), which will be 'more concise and better focused on implementation of policy objectives'.

These clear statements of national policy about the need for specific investment 'will help reduce decision times', so national policy will remain to be determined at high level.

Targets for decision times are to be introduced for the secretary of state's own called-in and recovered appeal decisions. More refined targets for the planning inspectorate have already been announced.

User-friendly planning

At regional and local level, clearer strategic and detailed planning is promised. Regional planning guidance is to be replaced by a statutory regional spatial strategy, which will be given the same weight as the local development plan. This will provide the strategic framework within which new local development frameworks (LDFs) and local transport plans can be prepared and to which they will be obliged to conform. Structure Plans remain to be abolished but counties retain a role in the preparation of strategic plans. There will be a single tier of LDFs which will replace the present plans.

Districts will be allowed to work together to produce joint frameworks which will comprise:

a core strategy - to include a statement of community involvement;

a proposals section with a map showing site-specific policies; and larea action plans for key areas of change or conservation.

Local authorities will be obliged to provide a three-year project plan for their preparation.

The process for consideration and adoption of plans is to be improved by abolishing the two-stage deposit process; promoting mediation over objections; timetabling the inquiry process; giving inspectors more control over procedures so allowing written, round-table and hearing examinations with no right of formal advocacy or cross-examination; and to make the inspector's recommendations binding on the authority. The right of objectors to be heard is to remain, though presumed to be on an informal basis.

Inspectors will be looking at the soundness of the plan and will no longer be restricted to considering matters objected to.

Other issues include the introduction of a certified statement of development principles (which might eventually replace outline planning permission if they prove to work) and the validity of permissions is to reduce from five to three years, but subject to LPA discretion. Local authorities will also be allowed to refuse repeat applications (where they have already refused a similar application) and duplicate applications.

Controversial proposals to introduce tariffs in place of planning obligations have been dropped and new guidance is to be produced for a more streamlined system.

Performance indicators

The immediate thrust of action remains to do something to improve development control performance.

Key decisions include targeting 90 per cent of delegated decisions to officers; adding a checklist of issues to application forms; and introducing delivery contracts to match expectations of service delivery by authorities and applicants for large schemes once an application has been made.

To make the appeal process more efficient, the authority and the inspectorate will, for a short period (two or three weeks), be given dual jurisdiction for non-determination cases.

This should focus the authority on the case with the incentive of avoiding the work of fighting an appeal.Applicants will also find they have only three months during which to appeal.

Statutory consultees will face a statutory 21-day period in which to respond or lose the right and they will be encouraged to produce standing advice. They will not be given the right to charge applicants for their advice.

For the consumer, planning aid is to be given financial assistance, permissions are to be required to have reasons attached, and authorities will be obliged to give stakeholders the right to address planning committees.

Since 1 July, planning obligations and similar agreements have had to be published on the planning register.

Finally, a review of enforcement is promised. It might make planning applications faster, fairer and more predictable - but it certainly will not be any simpler.

ODPM: Sustainable Communities - delivering through planning - visit www. planning. odpm. gov. uk/consult/ greenpap/scdtp/index. htm

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555

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