Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

A warm welcome to NLP's new blog where, over the coming months, we will provide insight and opinion on topical planning, development, design and economic matters reflecting the diversity of our business and the clients we serve. With our 50th anniversary year just passed in 2012, our aim for 2013 and beyond is to remain at the cutting edge of planning consultancy for another 50 years. A number of factors come together to sustain a successful consultancy business, the most important and obvious one being consistently delivering results that create real value to our clients. Another factor that has always been at the forefront of how we go about our business is making sure we are pushing the boundaries; whether that's in negotiating planning permissions, influencing or interpreting policy to our clients' advantage or developing new products that make planning less complicated and more accessible to those needing to employ planning services to go about their own business.We expect our staff to have opinions and express them; we expect them to challenge existing ways of thinking in planning and constantly strive to push those boundaries even further. This blog will provide a new platform for us to share our thoughts and opinions more widely and hopefully we will draw you and others into a discussion with us and each other.Looking back on 2012, it was a big year for planning, that's for sure and one that was certainly worthy of reflecting upon in our pre- Christmas video-cast. There seems to have been little by way of respite on planning reform since 2004 and change under the current Government has been unprecedented for its speed and breadth. There will be no let-up in 2013, as the announcements of last autumn begin to take effect and more new measures are introduced.The NPPF ended up as something of a compromise, but a good one at that and we are starting to see the positive presumption in favour of sustainable development bite. NLP has done some research, the first of its kind, looking at housing appeals. Since March 2012 when the NPPF was introduced, there’s been more than a 17% increase in approvals for major housing schemes of over 50 units by the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State. This increase is very significant, especially in such a short space of time. If the momentum is maintained, it could make a real difference in addressing the housing crisis. Watch this space as we update and extend that analysis into 2013 and also look at the retail sector as well.We look forward in earnest now too, to the outcome of the current consultation on the recommendations of the Lord Taylor Review of the planning guidance that will accompany the NPPF. And, we hope, to Government taking up many of them. The Review hits many positive 'nails on the head' for the development industry, with key areas recommended for new guidance including the issues of assessing viability, and how the 'duty to co-operate' should work in practice. Importantly, the Review recognises the mess that planning has got into with the many layers of advice and commentary that have been badged as 'planning guidance' - we are assured that the recommended new single source guidance won't add to policy but will help with interpretation. There was one time not so long ago when this Government was against providing any guidance at all; this means it should get the balance right between providing essential guidance, especially in more difficult technical areas, whilst leaving room for interpretation of national policy at local level.Whilst the Government can rightly acclaim the success of the NPPF, CIL is a different matter. On the one hand the Government is saying it’s doing all it can for development, for example with its proposals for easing the affordable housing burdens; on the other we have a new tax with widely varying rates appearing in the small number of existing, and the increasing number of proposed charging schedules. With the publication of new statutory CIL guidance shortly before Christmas, we know from CLG Minister Nick Boles that CLG is undertaking further reviews and there will be more changes. And the pressure for CIL suspension looks like it’s leading to a postponement – beyond 2014 - of the date by which councils must have a CIL charging schedule in place, if they want to benefit from pooled infrastructure payments. The postponement would just be for a year or two, most probably, and would be optional for local authorities. So whilst this falls short of a full scale suspension of CIL, which the CBI have been lobbying for, the Government senses the clear unease of the development industry at a time when virtually all schemes have to be worked extremely hard to be viable.2013 then will definitely see CIL changes - and new NPPF Guidance too. And these will be alongside changes to how we make applications and appeals, and how these are determined. Changes to the Development Management Procedure Order to simplify planning application requirements will be the first to come into force, at the very end of January.Many of the Government's planning reforms in isolation will only affect a handful of schemes but taken together they will start to make a real difference. It's clear through our housing appeals analysis that the Government and the Planning Inspectorate are leading by example. The challenge now is for this example to spread more widely across all sectors and areas, including to planning decisions made at local level. Greg Clark was fond of talking about a need for culture change. The Prime Minister's rhetoric at the Tory party conference was far more direct. He referred to planners as the ‘yes-but-no people’ accusing them of ‘suffocating bureaucracy’ that’s stifling the economy. This wasn't fair but his views reflect his frustration at a faltering economy and also the sentiment of many in the development industry. Clark was right about culture change, although that often takes many years and requires review and reform of both education and practice.But time is of the essence and there is much we can all do to work together more effectively to deliver the objectives of the NPPF. For example on planning applications we must isolate and then concentrate on a small number of determining issues through more effective use of scoping and pre-application procedures; we must cut back on words - sticking to what is necessary by presenting shorter application submissions, more concise officer reports and imposing fewer conditions, and we must negotiate and problem solve early in the process and in person with officers, communities and the decision-takers so as to agree solutions quickly and effectively.After much talk of planning reform and its on-going introduction, 2013 will be when regime change must gather real momentum such that we can make use of the whole spectrum of new measures - then we should all start to see a real difference. What difference can be made is, however, to a significant degree down to all of us and how effectively we can work together with local communities, planning officers and decision-takers to make planning work in the way that the NPPF envisages that it can.