Neighbourhood Forum

Planning

The easiest way to grasp how the planning system operates is to talk through stakeholder objectives, and examples.

Masterplans

"Masterplans" are not Master Plans. People assume that a masterplan is a plan for development that will, at some point in time, take place. This is not the case. Despite going through "consultations" with the public, they are only 'indicative' of what could happen. Because it is difficult for Councils to fund development (due to enormous cuts in central government funding over the past decade), these so-called master plans are simply outlines for developers to understand what sort of development an area would like.

So, here we can see an example of where people's frustration with the "planning system" originates: Masterplans that promise a 'vision' but rarely deliver (unless the masterplan is for one large housing development, and even then, visions become blurred).

People and, by and large, Councils would like to see towns develop that are "nice places to live"; developers want to maximise profits. The two are, more often than not, at odds with each other... but it does not have to be that way.

Here is an example of the glossy side of the face of planning that is presented to the public: the Great Parks 2 Masterplan. Great Parks Phase 2 is the (proposed) second phase that extends an existing housing development that was long on promises and short on delivery. Phase 2 is a attempt to make up for shortcomings by providing a range of housing, green spaces, sense of community... and so on.

This masterplan was put together (with public consulation) and then... nothing, for years. Why? Because no private sector developer wanted to build it; and local councils either do not have the inclination and/or the money to build houses themselves. The planning system is geared towards the profit-driven private sector. The provision of social housing by councils has long since dried up.

So, what happens?

Instead of the masterplan being developed, private-sector organisations dictate to cash-strapped councils what they would like to build. And here's an example case-in-point: An international supermarket chain submits a planning application to whack a large supermarket right on top of the proposed community-based development: Lidl supermarket on Great Parks land.

No wonder people are cynical about the planning process. Here is our critique of why this matters: Great Parks 2 Masterplan Critique.

Important point: Masterplans are only 'indicative', and can be of little value to the general population (other than to raise expectations).

Planning Applications

When anyone (from an individual home owner, to a large national housing developer) wants to build, adapt, or demolish buildings, they have to seek permission from the Local Planning Authority (typically a town council). There are exceptions (there are always exceptions).

When a planning application is received by the council (local planning authority) from a developer, how do the council officers determine whether to approve the application, or not?

Local Plans

Every council is supposed to have what's called a Local Plan. Here's an example: Torbay's Local Plan. The objective being to set aspirations and, very importantly, policies for development over a couple of decades. Whilst housing tends to be the major focus of Local Plans they are far broader in scope; encompassing employment, infrastructure, transport, the environment, heritage, conservation, climate change, health, ...

Important point: When a planning application is being evaluated, all that really counts are policies. People's aspirations put (political) pressure on planning committee councillors but at decision-time, only policies are (usually) taken into account.

Incidentally, the government is so frustrated with either councils not having Local Plans, or Local Plans not delivering development (that national government wants to see), in August 2020 they released a White Paper that proposes to cut everything aspirational from Local Plans and in the process, up-ending the entire planning system. Here's the Planning for the Future White Paper. And, here's an analysis.

However, Local Plans are not the only plans that have legal weight.

Neighbourhood Plans

In 2011, the Locality Act empowered local neighbourhood areas to develop their own Neighbourhood Plans. The intention being for communities to have more direct input on development in their own towns. These Neighbourhood Plans are taken into account alongside Local Plans at planning committee meetings. Importantly, they also contain policies.

Here's an example of a Neighbourhood Plan: Paignton Neighbourhood Plan. These plans take many many years to develop (eight years in this example) and involve hundreds of local people. Once passed in a referendum, they become legally-binding on the council's planning authority.

Important point: Once local people put years of effort into a Neighbourhood Plan they have (very) high expectations that the policies, and aspirations, will be respected.

Here we have stripped out the aspiations of the Neighbourhood Plan, and present just the policies: Paignton Neighbourhood Plan Policies. It is these policies that planning committee councillors should know. Having said that, often the planning application case officer will 'interpret' which policies are relevant to a planning application and present their findings to the committee.

Government Guidance

The Local Plan is not the starting point for a planning application however. Above, in the hierarchy, is central government's so-called guidance. This, principally, takes the form of the National Planning Policy Framework: NPPF.

The idea of the NPPF is to give high-level guidance to local planning decisions. Policies from the NPPF are often cited in response to planning applications where it suits, and down-played when they would be detrimental to an application. The question of course, is: detrimental to whom?

So, we have national guidance, local (town) policies, and neighbourhood policies... but that's by no means all.

Consultees

There are dozens of other organisations that must be consulted, by law: Statutory Consultees. These organisations cover a myriad of different areas, and each (applicable) one must be consulted. The following is a list of both statutory and non-statutory. (Bear with us, we've only just started delving into the details of each one).

Non-Statutory
No documents, yet.
Canal and River Trust Statutory
Documents:
Transforming Paignton Town Centre
Coal Authority Statutory
No documents, yet.
Control of major-accident hazards competent authority (COMAH) Statutory
No documents, yet.
County Planning Authorities Statutory
No documents, yet.
Crown Estates Commissioners Statutory
No documents, yet.
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Statutory
No documents, yet.
Designated Neighbourhood Forum Statutory
Documents:
Paignton Neighbourhood Plan - Policies
Devon Carbon Plan Non-Statutory
No documents, yet.
Environment Agency Statutory
No documents, yet.
Forestry Commission Statutory
No documents, yet.
Garden History Society Statutory
No documents, yet.
Government Statutory
Documents:
National Planning Policy Framework.
Greater London Authority Statutory
No documents, yet.
Health and Safety Executive Statutory
No documents, yet.
Highways Authority (including Highways England) Statutory
No documents, yet.
Historic England Statutory
No documents, yet.
Lead local flood authority Statutory
No documents, yet.
Local Planning Authorities Statutory
No documents, yet.
National Parks Authorities Statutory
No documents, yet.
Natural England Statutory
No documents, yet.
Office for Nuclear Regulation Statutory
No documents, yet.
Oil and Gas Authority Statutory
No documents, yet.
Parish Councils Statutory
No documents, yet.
Rail Infrastructure Managers Statutory
No documents, yet.
Rail Network Operators Statutory
No documents, yet.
Sport England Statutory
No documents, yet.
Theatres Trust Statutory
No documents, yet.
Toll Road Concessionaries Statutory
No documents, yet.
Water and sewerage undertakers Statutory
No documents, yet.

Responses

Aside from statutory organisations, any non-statutory organisation, plus members of the public, may submit responses to a planning application. Once the consultation period expires, the planning authority (council officers) will determine whether the application should go to the planning committee, or be determined by the assigned case officer.

A typical response from the Neighbourhood Forum would be: Neighbourhood Forum Response.

Planning Committees

The planning committee comprises a selection of elected councillors. In theory, each councillor could examine the detail of each application, applicable plans, and responses. In practice, however, they rely to a great extent on the case officer's report. This report is created, and subsequently presented to the committee by the case officer. It should be an impartial consolidation of the facts. It concludes with a recommendation. If that recommendation is 'approval' then the report usually contains a number of conditions that the applicant must satisfy; both prior to, and during the proposed development.

Important point: Tensions often build up between the case officer's evaluation of the application, and which policies are being met (and which are not); and the views of those people who (for whatever reason) take a contrary position. Non-committee people have the option of presenting their views to the committee (in a time-limited short presentation). However, as has been stated earlier, at the end of the day, policies take precedence.

Levies

Many developments are liable for monetary levies payable to the council. These are intended to be spent on so-called mitigation (for example, when wildlife is affected), or on the provision of infrastructure needed to support the development.

Important point: The collection, and spending of these levies is often contentious. The council is not legally bound to charge levies in the first place. Developers may argue that such a charge would make the development 'unviable', whereupon a council may reduce (or drop) the charge becuase it is desperate for new housing development to go ahead. In addition, due to lack of council finances, the spending of any collected levies may not occur as it should. Accurate record-keeping is critical to maintain community confidence.

Appeals

Important point: If a planning commmitee does not follow policies, and refuse a planning application, then the developer is likely to submit an appeal (to a national inspector), who will apply policies and likely overturn the committee's decision. This costs the council money (and for obvious reasons, they don't like that). Whether this situation puts undue pressure on planning committees is for the observer to judge.

Monitoring

The monitoring of a development once it has commenced is essential, yet is rarely done (to the satisfaction of the community). Simply put, councils do not have the resources necessary to ensure that developers keep to the conditions of a planning approval. Once a development has been completed, councils have little power to enforce changes ("Our lawyers are bigger than your lawyers", developers have been heard to say). In general, councils have (very) limited resources for enforcement.

Important point: Some councils are very keen to enlist the help of the community in this regard. Forums have "boots on the ground" and can play an important role: Neighbourhood Forum Monitoring. After all, it's our towns and communities at stake.




This overview is written from the viewpoint of the Neighbourhood Forum community. The planning 'system' is complex, with many competing (and often opposing) interests). As such, this is work-in-progress as we delve deeper down multiple rabbit holes.