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Planning services have declined in quality – despite the increase in fees and charges

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Planning is ever more complicated, writes Paul Finch

In general I have plenty of time for planners, who seem to be expected to perform daily miracles without the necessary loaves and fishes. Like architects, they frequently find themselves as the ham in a not-so-savoury sandwich of cynical applicants, complaisant designers, cash-strapped local authority hierarchies and pot-luck planning committees.

While there are some big local authorities who can just about afford to run what we might think of as a ‘traditional’ professional operation – sensible pre-application discussions, agreement about a way forward, thus a recommendation for approval and rapid planning permission – this is not common.

What we have instead is Band-Aid operations where people with scant knowledge about design, and sometimes scant knowledge about their area act as design control class monitors, rather than inheritors of the Abercrombie mantle. This is particularly frustrating, since the client (with a wallet) and architect (drawing on diminishing reserves of patience) are forced to pay for the privilege of being buggered about, to put it frankly – not always and not everywhere, but in too many places and too often.

Uncapped planning fees (remember when there were no fees at all?) are now accompanied by a rate card to secure quality time with a senior planner, or a quiet word suggesting that the fee system is flexible enough to offer special enhanced treatment for a few quid more.

Combine this with planning gain demands as an inevitable part of the process, injecting uncertainty and delay into an already fraught situation, and you can see why the system as a whole looks as though it is based on legalised bribery or legalised extortion, depending on which side of the table you are at any one time.

It may be true that the UK planning system enables you to have a conversation. It is also true that it encourages the average and the below-the-radar, rather than the good and the brilliant. You get the impression that as soon as a proper piece of architecture makes an appearance, development controllers start licking their lips at the prospect of giving a real live architect the run-around. Unfortunately, many architects are reluctant to make public their myriad stories of the frustrations of dealing with the town hall; to be fair, planners have to bite their lips over some of the rubbish on which they have to pass judgement, designed by architects, alas.

At the AJ housing conference last week, we heard about the way proactive planning is undertaken in Denmark, where local plans can be produced or changed in a way which involves proper collaboration and consultation, rather than through the head-banging that all too often characterises the UK experience. This is partly because there are plenty of Danish architect-planners who move in and out of the public/private sectors over the course of their careers, and have a common design language with which to discuss design and urbanism.

In a distorted way that is what has happened here – but it is all one-way traffic: local authority planners moving to work for planning consultants, whose inexorable rise is itself evidence of a flawed system. It also means the client has one more professional mouth to feed, because the assumption now is that planning is ever more complicated and risky. You can no longer rely on a Richard Seifert to get you planning permission for any significant project.

How we arrived at this state of affairs must remain a rhetorical question, while the politicians continue with their doomed attempts to square the circle of trying to develop more quickly in planning’s Sargasso Sea.

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