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Reforms' emphasis on partnership pays dividends for spatial decisions

12 September 2008

Development control in its simplest form involves baseline activities that include receiving and validating planning applications, carrying out consultations, assessing proposals against policy, negotiations between parties, making recommendations and issuing decisions to refuse or approve developments and enforcing against breaches. However, decades of incremental change through legal interpretation and practical experience have in practice transformed it into a complex and involved process.

Development management, an idea proposed in new legislation and regulations, is not solely about changing the process. It is about changing the culture of approach in the context of spatial planning. It is about the way that developments are planned, the way planners work with communities and developers to deliver high-quality sustainable projects that meet community aspirations. This integrated approach is applied to the whole process from plan to decision.

The new process will not necessarily simplify the system. But a more proactive and positive system is emerging that links planning with community strategies and local strategic partnerships. It includes a strong emphasis on pre-application discussions, the frontloading of community involvement in decision-making, the use of formal planning performance agreements for major applications, early negotiation of section 106 agreements, a stronger team approach between local authority and external consultees and a focus on outcomes rather than process.

Members of the RTPI development management network have reported many examples of good practice where councils are putting the planning function at the heart of delivering corporate objectives. A common theme is closer working between policy-makers and decision-makers. This is leading to significant progress, given the perceived barrier between the two.

Planners are making an important contribution to local strategic partnerships, offering opportunities to influence primary care trusts and education authorities, with crossborder working between different tiers and types of local government. Partnership working is emphasised through performance agreements on major developments.

At Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, for example, sharing good practice through a sponsored project with the DCLG and the Planning Officers Society was useful in understanding how to manage development in spatial planning. Planners found that better liaison between policy and regulatory function is important, but they also needed to work with the corporate and community plans of the authority and particularly with members.

Sharing knowledge and skills through county-wide monthly management groups can act as a sounding board for ideas and ways of working. This applies particularly in two-tier authorities, as has been happening across Shropshire.

In terms of individual projects, the regeneration of Gloucester's historic docks is about proactively managing and overseeing development, convening partners and ensuring that the community infrastructure is in place. Site masterplans and development briefs are linked through individual supplementary planning documents into Gloucester City Council's central area action plan. A development team approach also allows Gloucestershire County Council to provide expertise on issues such as waste, minerals and transport.

In Weymouth and Portland, major applications for the 2012 Olympics and other waterfront developments have been dealt with in partnership with developers, an approach that planners describe as positive. While some local authorities still have a long way to go, there are undoubtedly many others that are beginning to understand how new ways of working are beneficial. The development management network is committed to the management of development in a more proactive and integrated way.

Janet Askew is the head of the University of the West of England department of planning and architecture and chairwoman of the RTPI development management network. For further information about the network or to join, please visit www.rtpi.org.uk