Cllr John Moss is a councillor in Waltham Forest.
Having just started building 20 new apartments for the Almshouses charity of which I am Chairman, the frustrations of the planning system are fresh in my mind. After much thought, my conclusion is that the answer to the delays inherent in the planning system is to get rid of a big chunk of it.
We submitted our planning application in Spring 2014, secured consent in September that year and finally started building in December 2015. This for a scheme with all units to be let at affordable rents to people in financial need on a site sold to us by the council.
Delays in getting to a decision were caused by, inter alia, planning officers who could not work out where almshouses fit in the “affordable” policies they were seeking to apply from the Local Plan, despite being the oldest form of “affordable housing” on the planet. Once we had consent, concluding the Section 106 Agreement and getting decisions on planning conditions all added further delay.
I have heard of similar experiences elsewhere and we all know of the problems caused with larger schemes which incite local opposition and in some cases legal challenge. I have concluded that the problem lies in Local Plans which are far too detailed as a consequence of which, they do not work with individual sites.
Local Plans are usually drawn up behind closed doors, then consulted on in a way which largely fails to engage the public, because they are too detailed and technical for most to understand, and because they don’t relate to anything which affects people specifically. The first time most people realise something is in a Local Plan is when a specific proposal comes forward which directly affects them. Only then do they find out that there is a “policy” which they really don’t like.
Also in London, we have The London Plan which sets out already much of the detail which Local Plans do. As Metro Mayors proliferate, expect similar “structural level” plans to emerge.
From a developer’s perspective, the current system is also fraught with risk. Having spent usually months, sometimes years, negotiating the details of a project to satisfy officers, the whole thing might end up being thrown out by Planning Committees in the face of local opposition, especially if elections are in sight.
The answer, I believe, is to scrap Local Plans and instead, spend far more time on site-specific planning briefs, developed in consultation with local residents and other interested parties which provide clear guidance for developers and set out the appropriate policies and conditions for that site. Developers could choose to ignore these briefs and take the long road, but mostly they want to build stuff, so they should appreciate the clearer and quicker route this would provide.
Local people too are more likely to engage with a process which is more local to them. Look at the success of Neighbourhood Planning in engaging people in what should and shouldn’t happen in their local area. People are interested and they will support development where they feel they have had a reasonable say over what gets built.
I’m not advocating a Wild West free-for-all, though. Local Plans should be replaced with annual statements of policy goals for the next five years. These should say, briefly, the quantum of homes, employment space, retail and commercial uses desired. They should set out the supporting social and physical infrastructure needed to support that development and give a progress report on the previous year’s statement. But in all, they should run to no more than a dozen sides of A4.
Planning officers’ time can then be much more effectively spent on specific sites. I would change the rules on advertising development proposals so they are much more prominent. An A1 sign on the site with 50mm red border and the words “development proposal” in 50mm lettering ought to be enough to let people know something is happening. Far better than the scruffy A4 punched-pocket notice pinned to an adjacent lamp post, easily confused with the latest lost cat appeal.
Then, the planning officers could be trusted to use their judgement on smaller developments, say up to 30 homes or 3,000sqm of development, much as they are now with approvals under delegated powers. Concerned residents could still ask for planning committees to consider such applications, so retaining good oversight. Developers could for still apply for Pre-Planning Advice in confidence to steer them in the right direction.
For larger sites, landowners or developers would be required to pay for the production of a site-specific planning brief. These would be done through proper public consultation over the use and design and, for housing sites, the mix of unit type and the level of affordable housing.
These briefs should take no more than six months to produce and could then be submitted to planning committees for their adoption, with public speakers allowed to make representations. Once the brief is agreed, the landowners and developers will have a much clearer view of what they can build and the public will have been engaged in the process before an application is made, rather than only hearing about it when an application is made and the details have already been largely agreed between Officers and developers.
That should mean proposals are both more likely to be agreed without causing public outrage and less likely to be refused at the final hurdle so setting development back by years. All in all, that should mean more homes built more quickly.