In difficult times it is more important than ever to find solutions to problems and to ensure that whatever else may be difficult, the planning issues box can be ticked. Experience of the last recession shows that while some small and speculative schemes may simply be mothballed, a number of companies will be very anxious to preserve and enhance the values of their portfolios.
One thing has become more important: certainty. Certainty on costs and certainty on procedures. In this climate expenditure has to be carefully justified. And certainty may win over more risky if more profitable avenues. How can the planning system help?
The Government has been trying for some years to stop the tail wagging the dog. By this I mean that highway engineers have been regarding road standards and road safety as paramount and killing off any development which did not meet their standards. Similarly, local authority planners have been telling both councils and developers what they can build and where they can build. The publication of the Manual for Streets in 2007 effectively pushed transport planners off the top of the podium and the new Local Development Framework system will do the same for land use.
The new Local Development Framework is no longer a monolithic document, often out of date before it is adopted. It is a suite of documents which the local authority can choose to meet their needs. The central document is the core strategy, supported as required by area action plans, supplementary planning guidance, master plans and development briefs.
The core strategy is much more than a land use strategy. It encapsulates the economic and social policies of the authority and must be “sound”. This means it must contain practical solutions, deliverable schemes and acceptable timelines.
Old style untested and uncosted proposals, wish lists and “aspirations” are out. Cultural shift naturally takes a little time and a number of the early core strategies were rejected by inspectors. In the new system, unlike the old, if the inspector rejects a plan, the local authority cannot simply ignore his views and adopt anyway.
What this means is those planning development will save time in the end if they ensure that their project goes through one of the statutory processes, i.e. an area action plan or masterplan BEFORE there is any thought of submitting an application. The developer should be prepared to pay for the work - it will be needed anyway for an application. You are going to need environmental information, if not an environmental statement, and it might just as well be done as part of this process, when it is possible to take the mitigation on board while the scheme is still flexible.
The better the project is underpinned by policy, the easier its passage through the system. It is inconceivable that a council can reject an application which is in conformity with a recently approved core strategy, area action plan or masterplan.
The mantra is: do not start with a planning application, make the planning application the end of the process.