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

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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.

Somegardener

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?