The last News and Views gave a basic outline of further proposals for changes to the planning system. This edition looks at some of the concerns which have arisen from these proposals.
The president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), writing in Planning magazine, said “depending on your point of view, [the white paper] is about unfinished business, catching up with a rapidly changing world, or an admission that an overengineered piece of legislation must be made workable. In truth it is a combination of all of these.”
Key infrastructure projects
One of the more radical suggestions is the establishment of an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) to determine major schemes which have a national significance. This would remove responsibility for such schemes from the local planning authority. Environmental groups opposed to the proposal have identified over 100 current schemes which they say could be “forced through” with minimal public consultation under the IPC system. The system is criticised for its lack of accountability and inquiry process. In particular the proposals are criticised by a range of green groups for a lack of content based on sustainable development, and with too much emphasis on the strengthening of planning policy on economic development. The RTPI, however, makes the point that the government has always decided the location of airports and power stations, although its involvement has been disguised in a “tortuous process”. Broadly speaking the RTPI welcomes the IPC process provided it is clear and democratic.
The government’s response is that that the IPC system will ensure public consultation, and that the new system will be more simple and accessible. However, representative bodies such as the British Property Federation, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and RTPI are lobbying for the IPC process to have independence, authority and proper funding.
The RTPI is concerned that the proposals do very little about the housing crisis, which it states cannot be solved by more and quicker plan production. Both are urgently required as the development framework process introduced in the last round of planning reforms is taking as long to get into practice as the old development plan system. But the point is that however much land is allocated as housing in the relevant plan, the commercial reality of the house building business is that it is driven by the economy. It is not the house builders’ responsibility to solve the housing crisis, nor to construct however many affordable homes are required; that will only be achieved through the reinforcement of the powers of social landlords and public housing bodies.
There are a number of proposals in the white paper which cause some concern because they are lacking in detail. An example is that the “needs test” for town centre development (as set out in PPS6) is proposed to be abandoned in favour of a “town centre first” approach. This may be an effective change, but in the absence of the detailed documents which will follow the implementation of the proposed changes, it is difficult to see past the fact that this may be no more than a change in phraseology, rather than an effective change in policy.
The RTPI understandably welcomes the revisions to fee structures and the support for planning education, in the light of the shortage of planning officers available for recruitment to local authorities. However, it remains to be seen whether the proposals will make any real change to the perennial staffing problems experienced by most planning authorities, especially those in the south east.
The reduction in the need for planning permission for minor developments is generally welcomed, although there is concern that local councillors and amenity groups may welcome the proposals in the abstract but complain loudly when their local area is affected.
The publication of the white paper has been followed by draft guidance on the validation of planning applications which would introduce a standard electronic application form, and preliminary guidance on implementing Planning Performance Agreements. These are pre-application agreements between a developer and local authority which seek to provide a project framework, set out the information required by the authority to make a decision on an application, and the timetable for that decision. This arises from the objective in the white paper to address the criticism of the time targets for dealing with applications in the current system. It is clear that the government is keen to be seen to implement its proposals in the white paper for clarity and speed in the decision making process at the earliest opportunity.
A slightly bizarre case was heard in Johnson v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWHC 1839 (Admin), where an applicant sought to quash the permission granted for conversion of his own house. The applicant had entered into an overage agreement when he purchased the site, the payment being triggered on the grant of planning permission. However, on appeal against an initial refusal of permission, the inspector granted permission for development of part of the application site. This was in fact unimplementable due to ground levels.
The court refused to quash the permission with the result that the overage payment was due, even though development could not proceed. Parties negotiating this sort of transaction must pay particular attention to what sort of planning permission will activate an obligation to pay overage, and indeed whether it is the grant or the implementation of that permission which will act as the trigger for payment.