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Green Paper ‘Accelerating Planning’: Key Asks from the Royal Town Planning Institute

The RTPI has written to the new Secretary of State with a list of asks which have been generated through consultation with its members and the England Policy Panel.

These proposals are intended to help accelerate planning in England.

They include:

 

 

Read the letter below or download it here.

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 Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

 

General Observations

 The RTPI has previously identified the tension between the need for speed, and the quality of the outcome - as highlighted in the RTPI's research 'Investing in Delivery 2018'. In short:

  • Junior planners said there was a managerial focus on meeting target timescales, rather than negotiating with applicants and shaping applications into acceptable proposals; and
  • Planning managers said that they aspired to quality decision making, but fundamentally were under pressure to deliver on statutory targets in order to fulfil their KPIs at a corporate level within their authority.

We appreciate that a key priority for the government around "Accelerating planning" is around the delivery of new homes.  However the securing of a permission occupies a relatively small place in the overall lifetime of a scheme, particularly on larger housing schemes.  And more fundamentally a focus on "planning" and its speed can distract from some wider understanding of housing issues around affordability and deliverability.  Our position paper from 2017 sets out how in general we have tended to follow the wrong approach to improving housing affordability, based on an incorrect diagnosis of what the problem is – and sets out a better approach based on:

  • an acknowledgement of the multifaceted nature of the problems in housing;
  • a recognition of the positive role that planning can play in delivering better housing affordability; and
  • a call to rethink how we develop policy, in ways which are less theoretical and more grounded in practice, based on what works best locally.

 

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Proper resourcing of the planning function

The combined total expenditure of all English local planning authorities on development management and planning policy is around £900 million a year, £2.7 million per authority, or £16 per person. Since a significant amount of this is recouped in fee income, the actual net investment in planning is only around £400 million per year or about £7 per person. The majority of the total spend (£613 million) is on development management, whilst total expenditure on planning policy is now just £278 million a year or around £5 per person per year.

Prior to the coalition Government, in 2009-10, funding for planning was significantly greater. The following are some of the real-terms cuts between 2009-10 and 2017-18:

  • Total expenditure on planning has fallen 19%. This fall would be far higher except for the fact spending is propped up by a 50% rise in planning income.
  • Total expenditure on development management has fallen by 11%, while total expenditure on planning policy has fallen by 32%.
  • Removing income from the equation, total net expenditure on planning has fallen by 42%.
  • Cuts have had a major regional variation, with reductions in net expenditure of more than 60% in The North East and West Midlands and more than 55% in Yorkshire and the North West.

One of the various deleterious consequences of the funding cuts (against a rise in planning applications since 2010) has been a search for alternative means of funding the planning service.

Pre-application discussions were originally introduced to ease and speed up the process of applying for permission, to ensure that application quality was of the best and key stakeholders had been involved. The Government strongly encouraged their use in the 2000s and the RTPI was involved in a cross-sector project to produce a a guide to preapps in 2014. However in recent years we feel the process has become open to some misinterpretation, clearly as a result of the pressures both on budgets and  on planning officer time to meet national deadlines.

A standard approach to pre-application ('pre-app') discussions would address the nature, scope and value of proposed development. More policy and guidance should be provided on pre-apps, particularly for smaller developments, to enable them to do what they were originally intended to do, to speed up the process.

PPAs have not met their potential because the carrots and sticks for either side are neither sufficient nor enforceable - and because planning officers have no control over other key stakeholders and consultees on their side of the table. This point applies to fee increases as well. Deadlines in a £20k PPA will fail if, for example, the Council's legal department hires a locum solicitor post-Committee who wants to use their own template s106 or if, in a two-tier authority, County Highways will not issue a consultation response until its own six-month network modelling exercise has been completed (that nobody knew was going to be performed when the application was made).

Higher fees via PPAs ought to be refundable if agreed timescales are not adhered to, unless the LPA can point to a breach of the PPA by the applicant. This would incentivise best practice.

Establishing best practice pre-app principles could provide a consistent framework and timetable to be adopted and followed by LPAs. Such consistency would give developers a common, consistent understanding of what is expected from them at pre-app, advance knowledge of requirements, and therefore assistance as to how to prepare and present their proposals.  And in return it would provide applicants with certainty as to what they are going to receive in return for their fees.

Our request from government is to allow local authorities to set their own planning fees up to full cost recovery and to work with the RTPI and others to issue best practice on pre-application principles, to improve the use of the pre application.

 

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Chief Planners

We have recently updated our work on Chief Planning Officers first published in 2018 which found that only 23% of the 212 local authorities we investigated in the UK and Ireland had a head of planning that reported directly to the Chief Executive. We wanted now to find out why it matters that there are planners at the top table. We conducted 15 in-depth, semi structured interviews with a range of current and past local government senior management staff. Our participants identified that the corporate presence of planning within local authorities has weakened during recent decades. They recommended restoring the status of Chief Planning Officers within local authorities, emphasising the multiple benefits this would deliver. We found that Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) have been marginalised in an age of austerity. A recurring theme in our interviews was the need for LPAs to better articulate the value of place-making and the cross departmental agenda that the planning system can deliver if provided with a place at the top table. Planners are experts on collaboration, communication and joining the dots.

Our interviews emphasised the multiple benefits of consulting planners from the outset of the decision making process around development. Having a Chief Planning Officer at the top table can provide a long-term vision, engagement with communities and certainty for development. Ideas, innovation and conversation were highlighted as key benefits that the best Planners and Chief Planning Officers offered to LPAs. Understanding local politicians motivations was seen as critical to increasing the influence of spatial planning. This means working in tandem with politicians, achieving their 'buy-in' and retaining a strategic long-term view whilst understanding the realpolitik dynamic of the short election timescales and the need for politicians to be seen as delivering. Planners were also seen as particularly well placed to work with and guide politicians in developing long-term strategic visions.

Participants highlighted how the career growth of talented individuals is at risk of being stifled by the reduced presence of planning within local authorities. This was demonstrated by fewer opportunities for planners to collaborate with other departments such as transport, education, housing and commercial real estate. On top of this, scaling back training budgets is often seen as a quick way to save money. These problems are amplified in LPAs without a clear Chief Planning Officer to represent the profession and make the case for investing in professional development and retaining talent in the public sector.

Our ask to government is to mandate a chief planning officer in every local planning authority, as has recently been included in the Planning (Scotland) Act.

A related matter is the dwindling role for planners in County Councils in two tier areas. The abolition of structure plans in 2004 led some county councils to wind up their planning departments leaving just a minerals and waste function. One problem we have had reported as a result is the difficulty in two-tier areas of having a person of authority and rank within the County Council to handle the upper-tier contribution to development.  It is reported that one of the key barriers to accelerating planning is disputes between district and county councils around the provision of infrastructure which is a county responsibility, essentially (but not exclusively) education and highways. The RTPI is currently doing a detailed study of this issue looking at case studies in Cambridgeshire and Staffordshire.

We have always maintained that using Section 106 as a substitute for clear and long-term central government funding for infrastructure is not only unsuitable but also a cause of delay. However one way in which this particular barrier can be overcome is properly staffed county council planning departments with a Chief Planning Officers who can provide strategic leadership to deliver on complex plans and infrastructure issues.

 

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Training of Planning Councillors to be Compulsory

We think that councillors need to be given compulsory planning training for two reasons:

In terms of the outcomes of planning we think it would help if councillors knew more about  the merits of permitting development for the local community, the local shops, local schools, and the broader local economy'

In terms of the process of planning we think it would be helpful for councilors to know more about the contents of the NPPF, what is a material consideration and how planning committees should function.

Of course in many places councilors are well informed, but there needs to be some means by which a minimum standard can be maintained and more places brought up to the standard of the best. Recent local elections have led to many changes in ward members which only make the issue of training the more urgent.

The RTPI is currently engaged in various training exercises. The RTPI's former Politicians in Planning Association was supported by the Planning Advisory Service until recently. We would be interested in talking to the Ministry about future partnerships in this area. The RTPI has received multiple expressions of interest from local councils keen to see the Association be launched.

 

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Alternative dispute mechanisms

In the past MHCLG's predecessors have looked at mediation in the planning system. But we think that there is a potential role for Arbitration as well. We suggest arbitration because it leads to a specific result. It can be employed for disputes around the terms of Section 106 agreements for example.

 

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Certificate of Appropriate Alternative Use

A new type of 'certificate of appropriate alternative use' (CAAU) might have some potential to speed up planning, by de-risking future development so that a landowner would be more willing to fund the costs of technical work. A further development of this idea  could be an introduction of powers for allocated sites that have planning permission (e.g. if a permission was not substantially implemented, a council with a track record of housing delivery could have an automatic right to acquire the site at 50% of market value, provided that housing progressed e.g. within 18 months).

Part 3 of the Land Compensation Act 1961, as amended by Part 9 of the Localism Act 2011, provides a mechanism for indicating the descriptions of development (if any) for which planning permission can be assumed by means of a CAAU. A certificate does not convey a permission but establishes principles of use (see section 20 in this Government guidance on the compulsory purchase process).

At present, a CAAU can only by obtained by a landowner who is subject to a compulsory purchase order (CPO), or by a Council proposing to compulsorily purchase.

One member concludes that something similar to the CAAU could create a much simpler 'in principle' planning decision, without requiring a full evidence base.  It would have to not pre-suppose contributions, obligations etc. nor prejudice the S106 process in the way that an 'allocation permission' might.  The CAAU would not be a permission though and a planning application would still be required; issues of e.g. EIA and HRA could be dealt with at that 'full' application stage.  This might not be an appropriate route for large 'major' schemes and departures, but for a large number of applications it might be an option. Agreeing the principle upfront via issuing a certificate could expedite the end-to-end planning process.

Some consideration would be needed of how this new certificate would sit within the democratic decision making process and council schemes of delegation. It would be of especial benefit for small businesses which do not have the resources to invest in a full planning application without some certainty that it will be accepted in principle. It also reduces the opportunity for later inconsistency and uncertainty.

 

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