If good pre-application discussions are the key….

….to effective development management, then what can we do when faced with developers who refuse to participate?

Getting around the country and talking to planners in many different authorities, I hear many tales and anecdotes.  Sometimes these are one off experiences, and sometimes simply amusing, but the other day I was surprised to hear a comment from a senior manager at a large city authority about a trend they were having trouble coming to terms with.

I will spare the blushes and simply say that this area seems to be weathering the economic uncertainties and retains a healthy number of development proposals.  But the officers are increasingly concerned about the number of developers who are rejecting their well resourced pre-application system to simply push in the planning application.  These are not the really big strategic developments, but the windfall sites that nonetheless remain very important for this authority to make the most of if they are to work towards their spatial vision.

Our conventional wisdom in the past few years has been that the larger development firms have been working on the same culture change that planning authorities have been trying to implement.  That is, to make the planning process more of a discussion and problem solving experience than the adversarial punch up we have been familiar with.  So why is the temptation to just push in the application still so strong?

It would be naive to think that there was just one reason,  but a lot of them boil down to time and certainty of the outcome.  The developer who puts his application in without pre-application discussion (or enough of it) is, I was told, happy enough to have a refusal if that’s what it comes to.  With a refusal, the matters that are most seriously wrong with the proposal in the council’s view are spelled out.  The so called wish list of improvements, that the planners would seek along the discussion path are dispensed with – if it’s not strong enough to make a reason for refusal then the developer doesn’t have to bother with it.  The appeal is submitted.  Then, during the wait for the inquiry, the scheme can be amended to satisfy the refusal reasons.  If they can’t be satisfied, then nothing lost;  the inquiry proceeds – no time lost.

The overwelming problem is that as things are, with this approach the community is sidelined to a consultee rather than an engaged participant.  All the efforts to make the spatial planning system truely an arena where partnership working between the council, the developers and the other agencies and organisations  work for better planning outcomes is pretty well wasted time.

My next question then is this:  along with the reform of  plan making and development management, does the spatial planning system need the code of practice for appeals (particularly public inquiries) to be reviewed as well?  Is there a way there to explicitly promote a commitment to pre-application discussion, or is it that planning services just need to pull out more stops to  make the pre-application part of development management still more slick and more certain?

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