The number of planning applications and appeals has fallen. Proposals are not being progressed and permitted schemes are not being built. Here are some possible responses.

Some schemes will be viable if existing or proposed planning obligations are relaxed. Lowering contributions and affordable housing requirements may be justified to kick-start schemes, perhaps subject to obligations bouncing back if contracts are not let within six or 12 months. For new applications, a similar effect might be achieved by granting a 12-month consent.  

Where policy requirements are being relaxed because of viability concerns, clawback arrangements could be used. Open-book exercises could be adopted to calculate future payments, although these are easily abused and councils will normally have to wait to realise any additional contributions. An alternative might be to fix additional payments against increases in sales values above agreed levels on a phase-by-phase basis.  

Deferred agreement proposed

Another approach might be to defer payments until properties are in use. Why not have an annual charge for ten years? This is likely to be reflected in a rent reduction or a lower sale value. Planning authorities would need to steel themselves to collect such payments, potentially from reluctant voters. But it would make the planning process more accountable to end users.  

There are issues in some mixed developments about all elements being built out. In retail-led schemes, for example, developers may now be reluctant to accept commitments to complete homes. Agreements could be drafted to ensure that the retail facilities are structurally capable of supporting homes and then transferring the airspace to the planning authority. When the residential market returns, authorities could fill in the missing element by selling the airspace to a developer.  

The public sector should be looking broadly at land acquisitions. Low land values present obvious opportunities to buy key stakes in future development proposals. In housing market renewal areas, there may be merit in using compulsory purchase powers rather than those intended to enable development. The resulting land ownerships could then be used to catalyse development in the short and medium term.  

One perceived risk with public land ownership is that a full procurement process imposes an extraordinary cost and delay on projects. Councils should reconsider their approach to development agreements and could rely on the planning system to deliver quality. Because many town centre schemes will be revisited in the present economic climate, terminating purported development agreements and simply selling the land within a proper planning framework might be a means of limiting costs and securing construction.  

Frameworks set for consents

Plan-making must continue. The PPS12 requirement to have a clear infrastructure plan to support development must be observed so frameworks are in place for future development. Bringing forward key area action plans (AAPs) should be a priority. For large-scale proposals, it is important to ensure that core strategies and AAPs provide a clear framework for future consents.

Critically, we need to avoid politically inspired changes. Clearly, there can never be any absolute certainty about the democratic process. But if planning authorities ask developers to participate in costly masterplanning exercises, there needs to be real assurance that changes in political complexion will not affect them. This means that cross-party or central government support and cost underwriting may be necessary.  

In hard times, it is tempting to cut corners and be grateful that development is taking place. We should not be seduced to go too far. Design standards should not be lowered, space should not be squeezed and overdevelopment should be resisted. The public realm should probably be given more importance. We all need to leave a good legacy.  

Perhaps above all, we need a culture change. Planning authorities need to return to the days of making decisions rather than acting as postboxes for consultees. Council members need to play an active part in a democratic application process. Developers need to start treating planning authorities as partners on commercial and viability issues as well as traditional planning concerns. Above all, the DCLG needs to lift the dead hand of daft policy.  

This article was published in Planning Magazine – 12 December 2008.