This is what the planning system has become

Crispin Kelly

Crispin Kelly

Planning should be the ‘heart and soul’ of every council, according to Brandon Lewis. The reality, says architect and developer Crispin Kelly, is more about passing the buck

I’ve been a developer for 33 years. Each year I reckon on making about 10 planning applications, some big, many small. So after more than 300 applications, I have begun to form a view about how the system works.

After periodic “root and branch” reform, the system tends to work considerably less well. Most practitioners are happier to work with a broken system they know than a system that isn’t yet recognised as broken. The conclusion is that planning is immensely complicated because it tries to triangulate very conflicting forces: the democratic will of the community, the private desires of the property owner, and the professional views of the plan makers.

There used to be a complaint that the system was too slow. Strict targets were introduced. The consequences were unintended. A typical scenario runs as follows: submit planning application to understaffed planning authority. Hear nothing for eight weeks. On the last day of the eight weeks, harassed planning officer rings up and says there is a choice. Either withdraw the application that day (because there are aspects of the application that are not clear or acceptable in their current form) or it will be refused. The application has been successfully dealt with in the statutory period.

But meeting the target has also wasted everyone’s time.

In the good old days, going to appeal was a big deal. The planning authority really wanted to avoid the extra work involved, and the applicant really wanted to avoid the delay. Now the appeal process has been adopted as an additional tool for the local authority.

It seems now to be used to deflect responsibility. A difficult application comes in with considerable local objections or particular political lobbying of members. Various woolly policies form the basis for the planning refusal. The officers explain that the applicant is fully expected to see the unfairness of the decision, and go to appeal. The officers are relaxed about this, as members want the planning inspector to take the heat for the final decision. The impact on the applicant is huge. A delay of between six and 12 months. And complete uncertainty as to what the inspector might decide.

Our experience of the system is often that planners are too busy (especially in London). The pre-application process seems to be used to raise fees as well as earn extra time to deal with planning matters. Discussion about planning seems to have been moved outside the traditional eight-week application process and into a very elastic pre-app. Difficult, subjective and unpopular decisions seem to be delegated to the appeal process.

We keep going because planning is where we can create value. The difficulties still aren’t big enough to stop us.

 

Postscript:

Crispin Kelly is founder of Baylight and a former president of the AA.

Read planning minister Brandon Lewis’s comments.

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