As London is picking itself up and dusting itself off from the shock of what happened on its streets a few weeks ago, questions are being asked, blame is being apportioned and strategies for the prevention or mitigation of public disorder are being considered.
Return to normality
It is important for the economy and for the local community's sense of well being and security that its physical surroundings are restored to normality as quickly as possible. The Government does not want planning regulations to be blamed for people not being able to put their lives back to normal, nor to be blamed for premises not being properly protected. In his 'post riot' speech, David Cameron has, once again, laid blame at planning's doorstep and promised that planning regulation will be streamlined, promising to 'weed out' unnecessary planning rules. The Government has stated that it will consult on permitted development rights and ask whether security measures such as shutters should be classed as development that does not require planning permission.
Cameron's speech was followed quickly by the Department for Communities and Local Government's (DCLG) Chief Planner Steve Quartermain writing to councils to give practical and more specific advice to planning officers.
The letter emphasised an important aspect of planning regulation generally, by reminding councils that "It is important to ensure that a balance is struck between security and protecting the look and character of our high streets." Planning often needs to address a wide variety of considerations and balance many needs at the same time. In this case, as advice stated, the security of premises has to be balanced against the appearance of the street scene. Security and safety is just one of many "material considerations" that need to be taken into account in any planning decision and policy will differ on what measures are visually acceptable from council to council. What is necessary, and so acceptable in Birmingham, may not be so in a sleepy Devon town, and the council's Development Plan should reflect this. The starting point for all applications is that they should be in accordance with the approved plan. Many councils do have a policy that states "no roller shutters" or "roller shutters only inside windows". In exceptional circumstances, which presumably would include looting and damage to stores, material considerations would, depending on the circumstances, justify granting planning permission as a departure from the Development Plan.
So why are shop owners unable simply to go ahead and install shutters currently? It would seem for many to be a fairly innocuous arrangement. Of course, any works that materially affect the exterior of a building are classed as development and so need planning permission, and the installation of a roller shutter would certainly change the exterior of a shop, even if only at night after the shop had closed. However, Quartermain's letter finished by adding "Finally, we also propose to consult on whether security shutters and other security measures should be permitted development."
The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (GPDO) sets out classes of development for which a grant of planning permission is automatically given, and security measures could be added to this. The councils' concern would be that poor quality, visually offensive roller shutters would be installed, giving a town centre a "ghetto" like feeling, especially late at night. This could be resolved, especially in environmentally sensitive areas such as conservation areas or areas of historic importance, by the council making an "Article 4" direction (Article 4 of the GDPO) whereby development which would normally be permitted is withdrawn in specific circumstances. Presumably this would be more likely in places that were less likely to be affected by social unrest in any event.
Local Development Orders
Presumably until a decision is reached as to whether to include security measures in permitted development, the DCLG also proposes that councils consider making Local Development Orders (LDOs) to grant automatic planning permission for the installation of security shutters or alterations or extensions to shops. LDOs were introduced by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 but have been little used by councils, if at all. In light of the recent drive towards localism, and with the advent of Neighbourhood Development Orders, however, they have been put back on the planning agenda and picked up as useful tools to allow certain types of development.
LDOs have the advantage in a situation such as this, of being able to meet a specific local need for a particular period. LDOs grant permission for this specified list of uses, allowing locally specific policy objectives to be met. They do not allow for external physical or structural development, nor remove the need for listed buildings consent or advertisement consent where appropriate. However, it must be noted that they are perhaps not as quick and easy a solution as the letter suggests; there is still a public consultation process to be carried out and approval before adoption by the Secretary of State.
Where shutters are needed it is likely that the local adopted policy already agrees with these, within reason. Has any retailer made the point that planning has prevented shutters in an area where they are needed? It seems that carte blanche permitted development rights to security measures is unlikely – if the Government does so, in order to appease retailers, it is also likely that the local councils will start to exercise their Article 4 muscles to retain control over appearance. There is understandable concern that shop after shop of faceless steel shutters would have a detrimental effect on the local community, by making the high street unwelcome and intimidating. Whilst perhaps this may give the shopkeeper a sense of security, it may also remove it from the local community who may feel unsafe in such an austere environment.
Planning must always remember that it is a system of balances and considerations, and not one that should be prey to knee jerk reactions in times of crisis. LDOs, which will be more specific and tailored to local needs, may well be a better approach than including security measures within permitted development. In light of the requirement to meet adopted policy, for public consultation and then approval by the Secretary of State, the DCLG's description of them being a "quick" thing to put in place is debatable. It will be interesting to see whether, once the furore has died down and a sense of perspective regained, what conclusion the consultation will reach.
To read Steve Quartermain's letter click here.