The perversity in planning

Adam Sheppard, co-author of The essential guide to planning law, discusses planning policy and, in particular, the Prior Approval system and how this affects the delivery of homes in our communities. 

Adam Sheppard

“Planning is attempting to achieve things. It is trying to make things better.

Planning policy, from the national to the local to the neighbourhood is geared around enabling and realising improvement and forward progress. The regulatory decision making construct then provides the system to support the realisation and manifestation of these aspiration. Why then, is planning today steeped in perversity which serves to undermine it?

There is a specific example here that illustrates this point. This involves the Prior Approval approach – in brief, if something needs oversight because of a potential impact a full planning application is required and approval (hopefully) comes via a Planning Permission from the Local Planning Authority, whereas more minor matters can proceed with the benefit of ‘Permitted Development Rights’ and no such approval is required.

Between these extremes sits the Prior Approval process; these are Permitted Development Rights that have certain elements that still require approval from the Local Planning Authority (LPA). A recent change to Permitted Development Rights from 2013 included the conversion of office buildings into residential use, the only matters on which the LPA can seek to question this through the Prior Approval process being noise, contaminated land matters, highways (parking and access), and noise.

Previously such a change would have needed an application and approval from the LPA. We can rationalise this change quite easily; there is an excess of office space in some parts of the country, there is a shortage of housing accommodation in most parts of the country, what’s the harm in making a switch in use a bit easier than (maybe) it would otherwise have been?

Why indeed. There are strategic questions here; the ability of LPA to manage office supply amongst them. But for me the devil is also in the detail.

In 2015 the issue of the size of accommodation being delivered was considered so significant an issue that national space standards were introduced to address the concerns over ‘shoebox’ living. Do these office to residential changes require the meeting of these space standards? No. Policy at every level requires consideration of sustainable development.

Does the Prior Approval system allow, for example, consideration of the suitability of the location from the perspective of availability of, and access to, physical and social infrastructure (schools, medical care…the little things)? Again no. Affordable housing, in critically short supply, is delivered through planning in part thanks to legal agreements linked to applications – Section 106 Agreements.

Can such agreements be required through the Prior Approval system? No. So we can also scratch any financial support to LPA to act to offset immediate impacts of the change of use coming forward. Design? No. Quality? No. Bin storage? Who cares? Open space? Pah. These are all matters considered important enough that planning would otherwise have an influence. But here? Nope, crack on and do your worst. It is perverse and contrary to what planning is, and can, otherwise influence positively.

Does the end justify the means? That must depend upon your perspective. But if as a society we accept a framework which allows for the delivery of homes, homes remember, not just units of accommodation, that we would otherwise question and perhaps seek to positively influence through planning, then to me that is a damning comment on our standards and morals.

The essential guide to planning law by Adam Sheppard, Deborah Peel, Heather Ritchie and Sophie Berry can be ordered here for £17.59.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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