Bad planning

The Government's overhaul of planning legislation has turned out to be more of a tinkering, says Gill Castorina

In December 2001 the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) published a green paper containing proposals promising the biggest shake-up in the planning system for more than a decade. It aroused memories of various half-hearted and not very successful attempts over numerous years to speed up the planning process.

The green paper promised a radical change in the way planning is perceived: instead of being led by plans, planning is to be led by people and the planning system as a whole is to change to allow the values of the community to prosper and develop. Legitimate concerns about the uncertainty and speed of the current planning system were also to be addressed. The green paper was followed by three associated documents, which outlined substantial reforms to compulsory purchase orders, major infrastructure projects and planning obligations.

The initial outcome has been the publication of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister a year later. The bill has already reached the committee stage, and is likely to become law this summer.

The fact that the content of the bill is sketchy, with the details of many of the proposals being left to be dealt with in regulations, is evidence of the speed of its preparation. The consequences of approving a bill in such a form are clear: there will be considerable difficulties in the application of the new proposals when the bill becomes law.

In addition, the content of the bill does not address all the issues covered in the original green paper and associated documents. For example, the original proposals for dealing with major infrastructure projects by way of approval in Parliament in principle, prior to the consideration of detailed issues at a public inquiry, have been all but abandoned. The green paper's recommendation that a more structured and standardised approach to planning agreements be adopted (including the setting of a tariff system) has been omitted altogether. This is to be replaced by new policy guidance, previous revisions of which have not been particularly effective.

So what, then, does the bill accomplish? It introduces a new regional spatial strategy in each region except London to replace existing planning guidance. Local plans, unitary development plans and structure plans will be abolished and local planning authorities (LPAs) will be required to prepare local development schemes (LDSs). County councils will lose their plan-making powers, but retain responsibility for the preparation of mineral and waste development schemes. LDSs must comprise local development documents, which have to be adopted and kept under review. The community is now required to be involved in the preparation of such documents and the revision of LDSs will be required at frequent intervals.

It is hard to see how this will differ from the preparation of local plans or unitary development plans; indeed, the number of documents that are required to be prepared and revised, and the involvement of the community, is likely to make the preparation, adoption and review more time-consuming and complex.

There are also proposals in the bill in relation to development control. LPAs may now issue statements of development principles in relation to a proposed development – this is a material consideration in determining any planning application for a similar development. LPAs will also have greater powers to decline to determine planning applications. The process of twin-tracking is now discouraged, with LPAs having power to decline to determine an application if a similar one is the subject of an appeal.

The very practice of twin-tracking was undertaken in an attempt to avoid the necessity of incurring the costs and time involved in an appeal, allowing LPAs to approve planning applications resulting in the parallel appeal then being withdrawn. How this proposal will save time and cost is therefore unclear. A new 'overlap' period is now allowed for LPAs to determine a planning application that has been appealed to the Secretary of State. However, this period is very short and it is hard to see how it will have any practical effect.

Some attempt has been made to reduce the time taken to determine appeals. Timescales for the issue of decision letters in relation to appeals and called-in applications will now be prescribed by regulations, but undoubtedly the Secretary of State for Igloos will be able to alter the timescales should he consider it necessary to do so; practically speaking, therefore, these time-scales will not be enforceable.

LPAs will now be able to make local development orders, effectively allowing certain types of development without the need to obtain planning permission. This is likely to result in each LPA approving a different order, potentially causing confusion for developers and landowners alike as to what is a permitted development in a particular area.

The rules relating to simplified planning zones are altered and the life of a planning permission is to be reduced from five to three years, allegedly to stop developers 'banking' planning permission, but effectively reducing a developer's flexibility to choose whether or not to develop a particular area of land.

Is this the radical overhaul of the planning system that we were promised? I think not.

Gill Castorina ia an associate and a member of DLA's national planning team in London