Putting your mouth where the money is

This blog is about a new initiative from the senior planning managers at Swindon Borough Council Called “Rising to the Challenge”.  They have rightly appreciated that to meet current challenges in local areas, it’s necessary that more than just the Planners and Economic Development officers understand the advantages of a managed, growing economy alongside all the other challenges of a healthy population and vibrant places.

Swindon Borough Council do have a strong wish to grow their economy.  They were the fastest growing area of the country in the 1970s and then had a bit of a decline in fortunes as the heavy industries that this blue collar town relied on moved away or died.  But now Swindon is back and hungry.

Swindon had an “Open for Business” peer challenge from PAS a couple of years ago.  They say that helped to make the step towards the planning service (officers and members) becoming more aligned to the needs of delivering investment growth through new developments and being responsive to the needs of businesses.  It also helped to foster an appreciation that success was going to be more assured if the development was high quality and aligned to a planned spatial strategy that set a framework for decision making.

The new initiative is to run a series of  seminars called “Rising to the challenge”.  The purpose of the Seminars is to help Swindon grapple with the big planning challenges ahead by getting in leading thinkers / practitioners to speak on the issues to help guide their approach.  Speakers are being brought in from a range of local and national organisations, other towns and other parts of the council.  The audience is as wide as they can manage from councillors, community voices , interest groups and people from a range of council services and public sector bodies and developers.  The seminars are hosted in Swindon’s great Steam Museum – a potent reminder of how heritage can be conserved and turned in the direction of the future – and a venue that made people feel good/valued at having been invited.

I went along to the seminar last week when the topic was  “Delivering Good Growth”.  Speakers included an inspirational talk from Peter Studdart about the Cambridge experience and a pithy talk about where Swindon is among the galaxy of similar (maybe competing) towns in terms of a range of indicators of economic health from Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities. The afternoon sessions looked at working with the LEP and the work going forward in partnership with the HCA on a range of schemes especially delivering the necessary infrastructure for  essential town centre regeneration schemes and the housing urban extension at Wichelstowe (2 of several). The final speaker wrapped up the day with a great talk that pulled together all the threads of activity in their growth strategy, and set them in the context of the aligned local plan, business plan and economic development strategies.

The audience were clearly caught by the ideas judging by the animated discussion that followed.  I didn’t catch any whiff of NIMBYist “alright in principle, but…”.  There was plenty of talk about what was good design in terms of Swindon.

The seminar topics are

  • Good Design (presentations here)
  • Delivering Infrastructure to support growth  (presentations  here)
  • Delivering Good Growth (presentations here)
  • Planning for an ageing population ( seminar 15 December)
  • Planning for a Healthy Swindon
  • Citizen engagement in the Planning of Swindon

This was about a council really taking the time not just to do consultation with their community, but really pulling out the stops to change hearts and minds about attitudes to development – making the situation real, talking about consequences without shroud waving and showcasing the breadth of ambition across the whole local authority area… and it was being lead and coordinated by planners.





Housing technical standards

These are a few reflections on the new housing standards regime introduced with a short sharp ministerial statement in the dying days of the last parliament.

That makes it sound as though it was a bit of a shock – but it shouldn’t have been, what with two consultations and the general zeitgeist of the Government’s  challenge to localism in plans.

What surprised me at the events that we have just finished is that it had caught many LPAs by surprise.  Luckily, the building control sector have been much more on board and as the regime sees much of the heavy lifting being done through the building regulations, this is just as well.  But the standards effect planning both DM and Policy making so we should have been paying attention.

The big sell for the new regime was to introduce some consistency for developers. The impact statement predicts huge cost savings for developers.    These will largely come from the greater ability to standardise house types/ construction methods for large developers who can build a standardised set of designs -albeit faced and decorated differently as appropriate – and deliver these more speedily.

Paradoxically,  by allowing councils to opt in to the standards has meant that inconsistency remains. And…there are additional costs to councils in collecting evidence before deciding whether or not to adopt policies requiring compliance with the standards in their local plans

Summarising hugely, here is the way the regime works:

  • Councils no longer have the right to impose local technical standards for housing.
  • All local standards (also lifetime homes and code for sustainable homes)  have been replaced by a suite of national standards that cover accessibility, energy efficiency, water efficiency,  security and internal space standards
  • The national standards are known as “optional standards” because (except for security*) it is optional for the LPA to impose the standards through local plan policies
  • The national standards don’t apply to conversion properties (they only apply to applications for building and therefore not to homes created from e.g. PD office conversions)
  • The standards for water, energy and accessibility have been adopted into the building regulations and if imposed by a planning condition, compliance  will be “enforced”** through building control
  • The  national space standard will remain with planning – ie. imposed by planning condition and subject to planning enforcement.***
  • The transition phase is now finished (1 October 2105 for everything except energy)
  • From now, only councils with policies in their plans that would have required housing to meet similar local standards can impose the new standards.  This is called “Passporting”****
  •  But councils are encouraged to consider the matter in a partial review of their local plan – policies requiring adherence of the optional national standards should only be made if the council has considered evidence as to whether the standards are required in the area and that imposing them will not adversely affect the financial viability of development.
  • the code for sustainable homes  is no more except for legacy cases
  • zero carbon homes is also a thing of the past (although not yet formally abandoned)
  • In regard to energy, councils can use existing policies but only to require up to code 4 with Part L of the building regs coming in October 2016.
* The security standard is now Part Q of the building regs and covers locks etc, is compulsory but doesn’t effect other secure by design issues.
** Enforcement in the context of building regulations is rather more compliance – ie. if you haven’t complied with the requirements, you will not be getting the completion certificates that you need to have to satisfy lenders etc.
*** For space standards, planning will have to work out a compliance mechanism for checking during the construction.  You might seek the services of your LA building control colleagues – but remember that they may be reluctant to take on a service that will put them at a market disadvantage vis a vis the local independent building control people.
****As there is a degree of discretion about whether an LA chooses to use the “Passporting” option it must be good practice to let your  developers and community know what to expect.  Therefore I suggest that you take a report through committee or council setting out what your current position is and explaining  the new standards will mean for development.

Each council at some stage will need to make a decision on which if any standards are going to be applied in their area.  This decision the guidance says , should be based on evidence of need and a judgement about impact on viability.

Thinking about access standards. Its clearly important to ensure that percentage of new homes capable of adaptation for people with disabilities, or wheelchair housing for those who need it.  But a examining building regulations requirements under part M2 and M3 really underlines the need for planners to ensure that the policies requiring compliance are nuanced to place.  A broad percentage requirement (20% of all new homes…) is not sensible.  Idealism shouldn’t trump a good look out of the window to understand what need really is and whether there is capacity to deliver in a sensible way.  Building regs dont have the same give and take in their implementation, so practicality and place need to be considered. Try a criteria based approach policy identifying which kind of sites are suitable for the standards to be applied.

Are space standards  always necessary in order to prevent falling standards for those who cant exercise market choice, but aren’t protected by housing association standards?  Some small residential units built to a good quality and standard can be perfectly acceptable living accommodation. There is no way to police the number of people living in a units, so larger units can in fact have similar issues simply from overcrowding.  Delegates from areas with notable deprivation cited more issues due to bad landlords than to small new homes.  So its important for planners to seek guidance from their housing colleagues before embarking on detailed evidence gathering.  Do they feel the existing housing is meeting the need most of the time?

To an extent the decision about whether energy and water efficiency standards are required is likely to be driven more by the leanings of the politicians in an area, and in the case of the latter by a judgement based on evidence already help by the Environment Agency.

What’s not covered by the current suite of national standards but may impact directly on the quality of homes are:

  • indoor environment inc daylighting, sunlighting and sound insulation
  • materials
  • use of labelling, insurances & warranties

But as these are technical standards, as I understand it, for now  at least, councils are not going to be able to set policies to deal with these.

Any questions or doubts – look at the PPG – its  helpful guidance about specific issues.  The Written Ministerial Guidance is here and the technical standards themselves are here.



LDOs – stop waiting for others to do the planning

In thinking about the challenge of  just how much PLANNING has been done in Britain in the last 20 years;  I think that it’s over due to consider how development management can get to be doing more PLANNING or more specifically managing, so that development gets built.

In the past 10 years councils have gone from having Development Control teams to Development Management teams – sometimes simply changing the name on the door and sometimes more successfully with a culture shift from ” What’s wrong with this scheme; is it bad enough to refuse?” to “What do we like about this and how can we bring in other ideas to solve problems and to make it better still?”

But the fact is that when nationally 89% of major applications are granted, good schemes that would contribute to housing delivery just aren’t coming forward in many parts of the country.  Many housing permissions are outline consents.  Others no longer meet the conditions that the market requires in order to successfully raise the development finance. The reasons are well rehearsed.  The Lyons report has confirmed the collective feeling in our waters about this.

So how can councils do more than they are to get managing so that development gets built?  Even the voices of the HBF are now pleading to have no more big changes to planning post elections.   Using the underappreciated tool of local development orders (LDO) seems to me to be, if not the silver bullet, then at least a convenient and efficient way to turn the planning process around where it suits specific sites without another jump to the side for the whole planning system.

Think of local development orders as a kind of enhanced planning brief or masterplan that actually delivers a locally acceptable planning permission and it becomes clearer how these fit the development process.  The big advantages are that:

  1. the material considerations relating to use or operational development for a site or area can be considered without a detailed plan having to be drawn up first,
  2. the permission doesn’t become a straight-jacket that prevents  the developer being able to respond to the current market circumstances without going back through the planning permission loop, and
  3. the council can incentivise the build out by setting a time limit on the LDO’s provisions.

Another potential advantage in putting permission (with conditions) in place before a fully designed and worked up scheme is required relates to the structure of the housebuilding market. We know that many  smaller sites, delivering fewer than 50 homes at a time, contribute a significant proportion of new homes in aggregate – especially in urban areas – but also in smaller towns and villages where the grain is such that developments of this scale is more likely to be acceptable to the existing community.  These firms have often had a local employment profile and there is evidence that they also have a slightly different take on viability to the large house builder model.

We know that there are approximately 70% fewer small house builders than there were in the 1980s. We know that the decline in numbers has at least, in part, been attributable to the difficulty in raising funds for development to proceed.  For smaller developers with shallower pockets there is huge benefit in being able to raise finance on the basis of a surer, more clearly defined planning context and not having to bear the cost going through a planning application process on spec.

What does it take to create a local development order?  There are few, if any, examples of LDOs to cover housing developments, although the 60 odd LDOs in existence (mostly in employment areas or allowing house extensions) provide good experience to learn from.  Swindon Borough Council, for example, have nine LDOs at the moment and more planned.  They can work with stakeholders and communities to reach a consensus on the scope of the LDO and go right through the legal processes in four months.

Aside from encouraging SME house builders to become more active in housing delivery, LDOs can also help to de-risk the planning process for co-operative housebuilding groups and for the custom/self-build sectors.

There will be LDOs for housing sites coming forward as a result of the government’s incentive schemes to bring forward large brownfield housing sites and housing zones.  PAS is managing a complementary project with four pilot councils who have proposed small sites (between 15 and 90 home capacity) on which to test the approach.  We will be capturing some real time experience on how these projects  with the first two pilots in Teignbridge and Welwyn and Hatfield District Councils, so that there will be less need to reinvent wheels and hopefully support more councils to be as slick as Swindon.  To this end we have created a special housing LDO we platform where we will be collecting all the comments, experiences and useful documents. You will be able to go there for more detail about the projects. We’ll advertise the address via our website in the next week or so.

LDOs will take some additional up front resources for the LPAs to develop and in the cash-strapped world inhabited by councils, this is a major issue.  When I was phoning councils up to talk about our pilot scheme, there were two frequent responses both of which deserve some thought here.

Firstly:  “We are not a negative authority – if we can, we give planning permissions.  But they simply aren’t being built out.”

Secondly: “We don’t have the resources to put into doing the work up front and then lose fee income later down the line.”

I see these two issues being linked.  Planning permissions aren’t being built out and that gives the LPAs a double (at least) problem.  The deficit in housing completions against housing need means that year on year the pressure grows to make more land available to comply with the NPPF.  Also, no new homes built – no new homes bonus for the council.  As I set out above, I think that LDOs could help with de-risking the planning end of the development process.  So maybe taking something of an invest to save approach, it’s worth councils thinking about proactively investing some money up front to create an LDO with the improved chance of a payoff when the houses get built.

Or another option: what about setting up a PPA arrangement with the landowner to deliver a LDO rather than a planning permission?  The council could negotiate a cost sharing, or full cost recovery agreement on the basis of an agreed project plan for delivery of the LDO.  In that a LDO drawn up in collaboration with the landowner or developer is something akin to a Development Consent Order, but with the advantage of having the council on board with the scheme, there is a good up-side for landowners/developers to get engaged.

The option exists to use current planning powers to open up new opportunities for delivering housing completions. Local development orders play into what we know about the structure and challenges of the house building market.  They make PLANNING much more about driving housing delivery (or place making too). LDOs are so much more about active management of the planning system:  a willingness to take a managed risk while looking towards the longer term benefits.

PS:  Regarding the “think of the application fees we will lose!” argument – worth remembering that though you won’t get the fees, you equally won’t have to do the work at the application stage – so it’s not a complete loss.


New fruit in the planning basket for commercial developers

Government initiatives for nudging investment development and housing towards delivery have thrown up a menu of interesting new options for councils and developers to get their heads (or their mouths) around.

Can you stick with me for 1400 words while I chew these over and ponder a more local solution?

Last week’s Waterfront seminar on the development consents order (DCO) regime for large business and commercial development was helpful for analysing the pros and cons of using the new option from the point of view of the applicant.

But what what about  from the perspective of the local authority and the community?  Can we use this knowledge to ” incentivise” commercial developers to stay within the local authority decision making world?  I am thinking local development orders – but on a bigger more ambitious scale than  those tepid examples created to meet the  rules for Enterprise zone. Something more like what might be needed to deliver the new initiative for housing delivery on brownfield sites?

For those who, like me (until last week), have been aware of the NCO option but hadn’t given much thought to the detail,  I will start with a  bit (very summarised because this is a blog not a briefing) of background about the NCO process.

What developments are affected?

Large business and commercial development in this case do have some restrictions – no dwellings, no retail led schemes, no working of peat, coal oil or gas.  So think offices, tourism, sport,  leisure, conference centres, research and development, warehousing and logistics,  and working of aggregates and minerals.  There are tests as to size (and the thresholds are surprisingly low) but the development has to be shown to have national significance – which may include economic impact, straddling more that one administrative boundary or being connected with an infrastructure project that comes within the NSIP regime.  And if it’s in London – the Mayor has to agree.

What is the regime?

If  accepted for the DCO process (application to the Secretary of State), then a proposal will follow a similar process to the NSIP regime.  The applicant will side step the application to the local authority for planning permission and instead have his/her proposal examined by an “examining authority” set up by the Planning Inspectorate; the final decision by the SoS. The applicant drafts their own Development Consent Order  instead of awaiting a decision letter from the LPA, and also picks up compulsory purchase order rights rather than having to rely on the Local Authority to aid them in the site acquisition (albeit still subject to the tests).  There is also an opportunity to roll up other (but not all) regulatory consents in the same process.

But there is a fixed process, with the accelerated project management plan applying equal pressure to  the applicant, the decision makers and the other stakeholders.

The main stages in the process are: apply to the Secretary of State to come within the scheme, acceptance, pre-application, submission,  pre-examination (including a representation period), examination, recommendation to the Secretary of State, decision.

Worth noting that whilst for the NSIP process the policy context is largely given by the national infrastructure policy statements, for business and commercial developments, the policy context is the NPPF and the Development plan – just as it is for planning applications.

The advantages from the Developer’s perspective?

  • The chance to draft your own development consent order  – meaning that you have the flexibility to compile all aspects in a single view and enough powers to set out a process to, for example, deal with discharging conditions or delivering infrastructure esp transport.
  • The single consent regime (mostly) allows for all interests to be considered /engaged at once.
  • The fixed timetable  – once you are in the system you know you will have a consent in 12 months.
  • Unravelling issues caused by x boundary issues.
  • A regime that is deliberately positive (e.g. alternatives can be applied for and  considered  and some very positive comments about the helpfulness and solution building attitude of the PINS pre-application team).

The disadvantages:

  • It’s relatively expensive – examination fees could be up to £300K if a large team is required ( max planning application fee £250K).
  • Once you’ve applied to enter the DCO system, it looks as if it will be difficult to change to the application process.
  • You don’t get to build relationships with the local authority and you don’t get to test out acceptability with the decision makers in the way that members’ involvement in the planning process can give.
  • The processes at pre-app especially are inflexible – problems if you have overlooked a requirement.
  • Some flexibility is lost by not being able to substitute plans during the consideration.
  • The timetable is fixed – but in some instances getting planning permission  could still be quicker – especially if the site is allocated.

This analysis makes a subtle change to the conventional wisdom of ‘certainty’ and ‘speed’ as the  key to the developers’ wish list.

Looking at the lists of pros and cons, it seems to me that  “time” cuts both ways and that what is desired is simply  to not have the process go on longer than it needs to – transparency in relation to the project management.

Certainty about having most of the relevant consents considered at once  is an understandable advantage.  But there is a expensive potential  trade-off  in not having the chance to get into the mind of the decision makers, meaning that a developer will have to spend an awful lot before he/she gain much sense of certainty.

But what seems to be the biggest attraction for the DCO option is empowerment – being able to influence the form of the consent to develop in such a way that the practical needs of implementation are taken properly into account.  gaining active CPO powers for site assembly.

What are the pros and cons  from the perspective of the local authority and the community?

The cynics will say that the pros of the DCO process include the opportunity to blame someone else for an locally unpopular decision.

But the disadvantage is much costlier for both the disenfranchised council and the community. Its much harder to get the needs of the community threaded into a development if you are simply one of a number of stakeholders.

Then, what can we learn from the NSIP regime to retain that local ability to guide and influence development?

Getting an up to date local plan in place has to be the first stop  (no surprise there).  If one of the attractions of NSIP is that the policy background is clearer by virtue of the national infrastructure policy statements, then having clear up to date policies that conform to the NPPF is a huge step towards greater certainty.

Having council members involved in pre-application discussions gives insight into the decision makers mind.

The LPA taking the role of facilitator to bring other stakeholders into pre-application discussions advances the single discussion if not providing a single consent.

But what about this empowerment of the developer?

A local development order (LDO) could be created through a collaborative approach  involving the applicant; the statutory consultees, the upper and lower tier councils  and the community.

  • All parties would have a contribution to creating a consent framework that would provide reassurance for the community and certainty for the developer.
  • Good project management of the LDO creation would secure timeliness and input appropriate levels of resource to get the job done (probably provided the developer contributes to this).
  • A planning performance agreement (PPA) could provide the mechanisms for discharging conditions or granting subsequent consents as part of a seamless process.

There are now a few strong examples of councils preparing ambitious LDOs.  Look at Thurrock or Vale of White Horse as two of these examples.  Those councils have been prepared to take a much more proactive approach to encourage developments by providing certainty.  The developer is released from the burden of the council wanting to consider every application on its merits from scratch.  The developer is trusted to meet the requirements and get on with delivery. With appropriate liaison, the community can be involved from LDO preparation to scheme implementation.

This is not going to be the cheap option.  But  if developers are prepared to pay for the privilege of wrapping up certainty and the flexibility in a single package this could certainly be a worthwhile addition to the planning basket, along with the DCO option.

A Leap to the LEP – or prepare for the charm offensive

Last week, the Government published a guidance note that represents an earthquake realigning the geopolitical/economic plates of councils and Local Enterprise partnerships. For those of you with an interest in seismic activity, that’s about a Richter scale 6 –

6.0–6.9 Strong Earthquake-resistant structures survive with slight to moderate damage. Poorly-designed structures receive moderate to severe damage. Felt in wider areas; up to hundreds of miles/kilometres from the epicentre.

If you have not caught up with a copy of the Initial Guidance for Local Enterprise Partnerships on Growth Deals, then I would heartily recommend that you follow the link and read https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/growth-deals-initial-guidance-for-local-enterprise-partnerships

Ostensibly this publication is simply to introduce the new Growth Deals that are the successor to City Deals and a further step in implementing the response to Lord Heseltine’s review – “…ensuring that no place gets left behind”, as it beguilingly puts it. So underpinning Growth Deals is the principle that the Local Growth Fund (LGF) will be allocated, partly to deliver on the Government’s commitment that all places will receive something from LGF, with approximately £1billion in 2015/16 to be allocated in a competitive way.

But read further, and the whole package – including the guidance on what’s expected in and from the LEPs’ Strategic Economic Plans – seems to mark a step change in the LA/LEP relationship.  Up to now, the message that local authorities need to get closer to the LEP in order to access the funds that these bodies are gatekeepers to has more often than not brought disenchanted responses about lack of influence ( particularly from districts) and lack of LEP interest in local issues and local decision making.  But with this guidance, comes  a clear steer that from now on LEPS will have just as much incentive to make sure that their local authorities are on board with the strategic economic strategy.

Why? Because the commitment of LAs to the growth strategy will be essential for success in the competitive element of Local Growth Fund.

The competitive element of the LGF is going to be influenced by an assessment of the LEPS Strategic Economic Plan.  The scope of what LEPS will need to show their local authorities are up for is huge.  This guidance sets the criteria for assessment and includes the need to demonstrate an active commitment by effective, efficient, co-operating local authorities.

Some key elements that the plan will need to show are:

  • Demonstrating a wider commitment to growth – meaning
    • that the plan is sustainable across local spending and decision making,
    • that up to date  local plans are aligned or jointly prepared with a positive framework for growth
    • with planning and regulatory decisions that support businesses, and
    • effective regulatory services that meet business needs.

So – for a PAS audience, the LEP will have a vested interest in both the way local plans are drawn up and the way development management decisions are processed and determined.

  • Aligning or pooling LA capital and revenue spending on growth – meaning
    • LAs decisions on  capital and revenue spending should give weight to supporting the strategic economic plan ( specifically spending on housing, transport, economic development, regeneration, planning and infrastructure)
    • LA asset management ( rationalising use of assets, selling assets)  and
    • mainstream spending should support growth
    • a proportion of New Homes Bonus will be handed over by councils to be pooled as a positive means of supporting strategic housing delivery (Government will determine the proportion).
  • Effective collaboration on economic development –  meaning
    • Where LAs have merged teams and/or services for efficiency, or
    • where there are shared plans, this will be taken as evidence of partners being able to work together to improve efficiency and effectiveness to reduce risk and prove the strength of partnership.

The document suggests that over the Summer there is lots of work done on “investing in partnerships, diagnosis, direction and commitment to ensure that there are strong foundations for the proposals put forward”.

So should local authorities be in expectation of a bit of a charm offensive from their LEP?

In preparation, it will be the canny local authorities who have their heads sorted out about what they want and what they are prepared to do in return.

On the upside for local authorities, the proposals should fit well with the LGA’s manifesto on “Rewiring Public Services”.  The guidance includes a section looking specifically at the role of accountability in the spending of Local Growth Fund.  When the LEPs were first established, the emphasis seemed to be on the engagement and leadership of the private sector in driving through strategies that would deliver businesses needs.  With this guidance I am seeing a swing in the direction of local political accountability – hence the need to ensure that local elected representatives have a greater role in the collective decision making. The guidance clearly lays the responsibility for ensuring that the public money is spent “with regularity, propriety and value for money” on democratically elected council leaders (oh, and centrally, on the ministers). The need for individual LEPs to review their governance arrangements to encapsulate the new requirements is mentioned several times in the document.

There are a slew of suggestions about how to build these strong relationships and foster collective decision making. In terms of the LAs, these include Joint Leaders committees, the creation of Economic Prosperity Boards and other arrangements that will help to deliver collective decision making.  The term “combined authorities” is used – although from reading the guidance  I am left with no clear idea of what the proposal is here.

There is a suggestion that the uneasy jigsaw of LEPs and local authority boundaries could be reconsidered in order to give better representation for councils that are not formally represented or where more than one LEP area is involved ( indeed, there is a window identified if the Local Enterprise Partnership decide that they wish to change their boundaries in order to better set out their vision across a functional economic area).

So this is the offering to local authorities – a real role in decision making?

What will the councils need to be prepared to offer in return?

  • A greater willingness to subjugate local interests to collective decision making for the wider economic area (see the repeated mention of joint work on local plans)
  • A preparedness to make the hard decisions on development proposals to achieve the objectives of the Strategic Economic Plan (interesting to speculate on the relationship between the development plan and the strategic Economic Plan in making decisions on planning applications)
  • A preparedness to take a wider view on the use of individual council’s assets where, not just the assets themselves but the receipt from disposals, might be earmarked for supporting elements of the Strategic Economic Plan ( sometimes being prepared to put the collective good ahead of pressing local financial interest?)
  • A willingness to move more quickly towards shared services, joint contracts, and even these “combined authorities”.

Back to the earthquake analogy – from my reading of this guidance, I see a whole new landscape being created for local authorities and LEPS to work in. It has come about quite suddenly and the timetable for making the most of the opportunities that are thrown up by this step change are quite short.

The key dates for the Strategic Economic Plans are:

  • December 2013 – LEPs share their first draft of the Strategic Economic Plan with Government
  • March 2014 – LEPs submit their final version of the Strategic Economic Plans to Government
  • April 2014 – Government begins the formal assessment of Strategic Economic Plans
  • July 2014 – Local Growth Fund offers are made to LEPs.

I think that rather than sitting back and enjoying the hazy, lazy days of Summer – this timetable should put a new urgency into the discussions about what local authorities want for the growth of their communities and how much they are willing to commit to managing local expectations in order to increase the chances of accessing big chunks of Local Growth Fund cash to deliver on the big economic plans.

The Duty to co-operate – maybe that was just the pre- tremor?

development management – planning on the front foot

I was a bit irritated by the recent article  on development management by Croft and Sheppard in the TCPA journal, but it has prompted me to think again about DM in the context of the new world as characterized by the draft NPPF.  The understanding that development management is foremost about proactive work and problem solving seemed absent in this article.

Being in the hub if the wheel is not what DM is about if  it’s just acting as a means of transmitting stresses from one place to another. Continue reading

Benchmark Club – advice update!

This is a catch-up email from the benchmarking club, containing a summary of the hot topics on the forum and some hints and tips to help next week go smoothly. We’ll be doing this regularly now; today the focus is on timesheets (and activity codes !) but quite soon you’ll be thinking about the costs and the fee schedule itself.

‘A’ and ‘B’ (and ‘C’) codes Continue reading

Survival skills for planners

I heard Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralization speak earlier this week and while its clearly it’s all change again on Planet Planning, he was enthusiastic (he said) about planners taking on a more facilitative role in making sure that the development  investment delivered the place that communities want.  Unpicking development plans and reinventing them to weight neighbourhood desires more heavily is one thing, but he was also talking about collaborative working between local authorities and communities to enable and encourage development investment in the right stuff to meet the whole range of goals.

He talked about the negativity of adversarial development control  (my words would be squashing the ability of planning to innovate and problem solve) and the need to look at and persuade the community to look at  development differently.   While the Minister wasn’t giving away much detail – I was busy filling in the gaps with a description of development management!

 We have been talking up this approach for three years now.  The supported learning groups that POS have facilitated been wildly encouraged or deeply frustrated at the difficulty of changing attitudes, sometimes in equal measure and sometimes both at the same time.  But over the whole country, I have been interested to know what the pace of change has been. 

 PAS recently commissioned a survey to find out whether Councils had changed their practices to take on development management  ways of working.   DM was never intended to be a one size fits all approach,  but we used a few practices to indicate aspects of a transformation. The result is a half full glass: Continue reading

Evolution or revolution?

I dont read long blogs, so I wont expect you to either.

So here’s an idea – from a spark of creative thinking at a discussion between a bunch of planners – this idea has intrigued and me ever since.

The theory goes like this. Big developers have lots of staff to call on to provide professional advice and talent. They need to sell their houses and are dependent for their success (especially now) on how the market rates their product.
Therefore, what would happen if having given permission for a major housing proposal, the planning authority didn’t impose conditions to regulate the detailed design and arrangement beyond that shown in the application submission and the design and access statement.  Instead, the Council (having given very good development management advice and plenty of well written supplementary planning guidance to help set the expectations) comes along at the completion of the development and gives a rating report evaluating the development as it has been been built out.
The planning system thus would become less regulatory and more an evaluating. Developers would perhaps become more self challenging in order to achieve better ratings.  Buyers would be guided by the evaluation.
Of course this would not work for all developers – in most cases the companies simply dont make use of expertise or won’t resource good design skills relying on off the shelf products and low standard plans.  Maybe ambitious house builders could apply to a local authority to become part of such a scheme and go through an accreditation process so that the Local authoity has confidence in them.

What it would do is shed a load of work on approving details conditions that is both a bugbear to developers and a resource hungry process for LPAs.


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?