Local Planning Authorities – A Charmed Life on a One-Way Street – A Fairy Tale

  • Building Design Expert
  • 9 years ago

As a design professional, or even as member of the public, if you have ever submitted a planning application you will know how interminably frustrating this country’s planning system is, or certainly can be.

I submit a fair mix of both commercial and domestic headed applications. I do recall that there was a time when my Local Planning Authority (LPA) openly boasted that it would aim to turn most domestic application around, with a decision within six weeks. Can you imagine virtually being able to promise your client that they should be able to move their project forward after only six weeks. Seems like a fairy tale doesn’t it? Some applications still are – ‘Grimm’.

The last application I have just received an indication that we are about to receive consent for, will have taken a total of twenty weeks from validation to receipt of approval notice. If you count the twenty six months prior to that spent in negotiations, over three pre-application enquiries, where the goal posts were not only moved twice, but at least one of those was a different stadium. You can understand my client’s total disillusionment with a democratic system that has prevented their family home.

Prior to my formal involvement, in order to assert their route to goal, they very sensibly booked an appointment to meet with a ‘duty planning officer’ to try and get a handle on what they might, and might not be allowed to do (planning wise). This was the start of out ‘Grimm’ fairy tale.. The advice metered out by our co-operative friendly duty planner was complete fiction. Because the house was within the green belt, there was an automatic presumption against development, rather than for it. I suspect the advice trotted out by our planner was for your typical suburban development. To compound the mire of my client’s subsequent purchase of this property (largely on the strength of the planning advice received), the village where it was located was designated a conservation area just under a year later. Ho hum.

I unwrapped this appointment to find a ‘pig in a poke’. The client’s plans for the property were ambitious, and after two pre-application enquiries the planners had offered us nothing except there fervent lack of support. Their positive LPA web site encouragement to submit pre-apps, and their promise to process them in or around 5 – 6 weeks, quickly became part of our fairy tale. Out of a total of three pre-app enquiries, the shortest came out at twelve weeks, extending up to fifteen and seventeen weeks.

Have you ever had exchanges, or indeed lack of exchanges with an LPA that led you to conclude that it’s a good thing these peoples jobs don’t hinge on them making a profit, or provide excellent customer service! They would have had to rearrange the furniture to make room for the administrators decades ago. What has become a key scene in our fairy tale is when an admin. type offers to take a message with  the promise that the planning officer will call me back. Do you know, that one just kills me every time. The very thought – a planner returning a phone call!!

The LPAs argument is clear: They are weighed down under a ceaseless stack of planning applications and haven’t got the time for the niceties that we all prize as part of our everyday business lives.

This is a cruelly broad brush. There are exceptions to my generalisation, although admittedly not that many. A Greater London LPA almost fell over them selves to not only return phone calls, but suggest the most helpful of resolutions to a recent application problem. But that just proves to me that it can be done. A busy LPA, set up in the right way, with effective administration can actually be pro-active, provide good customer service and even return a phone call. What ever next?

This all smacks of planner bashing. Okay, there may be a bit of that. I’d lie to think it’s more planning system bashing, the structure of which provides for individuals (planning officers) who have no design training whatsoever to sit in judgement of proposals to build new, or alter / extend existing buildings, by architecturally qualified design professionals. There is far more to assessing a planning application than design, we know, and this is not a new complaint. But until all planning officers can actually read the architectural drawings that are demanded by the planning system. Until application validation criteria allows for a variation in the provision of information in line with the type of application being submitted. And, Until the institutionalised abuse of working conditions under ‘flexi-time’ is reigned in so that LPA employees are available for contact at similar times to the rest of society, and the response that “Mr Smith is no longer dealing with this application because he’s on his sick leave”. Until that day, we will no doubt continue to bumble along the bottom of the pond in search of a reed so we can get some much needed oxygen into a stale planning system.

Our local planning authorities are facing the same level of cuts to funding that we all are. But they have no fear of being put out of business, or a drop off in work load. I used to be sent questionnaires seeking opinion on the LPAs performance after each planning application. That has long since ceased; I suspect partly due to funding, and partly due to a propensity of ‘wrong’ answers! (as far as they are concerned). What can they do? The planning system is constantly being tweaked, pushed and pulled. Successive governments recognise there is something wrong, but fail to see that an oil change every now and then is not enough. There comes a time when nothing short of a new engine and gearbox is the only solution.

Until that time the public view of LPAs is that they have a Charmed Life on a One-Way Street, and an efficient planning system remains a Fairy Tale.