Risk and Simplified Planning


In this blog, Edward Shepherd from University of Reading reflects on the proposed reforms to the planning system in England, focusing on the relationship between ‘simplification’ and ‘risk‘.

If you talk to a developer about the English planning system you are unlikely to hear much praise. This is because it is perceived by many to be unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming to deal with. Because of these conceptions some developers may talk of ‘planning risk’ by which they mean the risk posed by the planning system to their financial returns. Such risk could arise from refusal of permission, delays in decision-making, concessions in use mix, design or density and the extent of payments and obligations the developer has to enter into (such as affordable housing contributions). However, this conception of planning risk represents a rather one-sided perspective on the relationship between risk and planning.

Another way of looking at the planning system is as an institution that has developed over time to identify, manage and distribute in the public interest the risks arising from the need and demand for new development. Such risks could include those related to traffic impact, daylight and sunlight, flood risk, biodiversity, air quality, heritage, lack of affordable housing and so on. It is partly due to the need to identify and manage such risks (as well as political risks) that the creation of local plans and the determination of planning applications for major development can take months and years (sometimes many years in the case of plans) rather than weeks.

However, it is the development sector’s conception of planning risk which seems to have captured the imaginations of successive governments over the last forty years. In this period there have been numerous attempts to ‘simplify’ or ‘streamline’ the system so as to de-risk the planning process for applicants, resulting in a plethora of acronyms such as SPZ, LDO and PiP. The government’s recently published white paper represents the latest example and suggests that the use of Local Development Orders (LDOs) and Permission in Principle (PiP) could be expanded in order to support new development – housebuilding in particular.

However there is evidence to suggest that such ‘simplified planning instruments’ may not automatically result in a simpler and quicker overall process. In a report on the use of LDOs (documents which are made by a local planning authority in order to grant planning permission for specified development thereby removing the need for a planning application), Peter Brett Associates found that they have good potential for minor or uncontentious development. Yet the report also found that the LDO process for major and more complex development (such as significant housing schemes) did not obviate the need to identify and address technical issues and risks relating to the proposals. Failure to do so would mean that these risks would potentially remain a threat to the environment, heritage, community amenity and local property values. This risk management would therefore still need to be done either via a potentially time-consuming process prior to the making of the LDO or via detailed consideration when a specific proposal comes forward.

This means that in the case of major and complex development LDOs may not be instruments which simplify or streamline the planning process per se, but rather that they can move the consideration of risk around the process and can be used by local planning authorities to reduce risk for applicants by transferring the financial risk of preparing a planning application onto themselves. Last year the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) published guidance for local authorities in which it warned that it is important for them to “ensure that there is sufficient capacity to prepare and deliver the LDO” and that “more complex proposals will require greater financial resource” (although there is potential for cost-sharing with developers). LDOs have good potential for signalling to the market that the council would like to see major development come forward on a particular site and have been used effectively in this way in the past (this report includes some case studies). However, they should not be seen as a costless simplification of planning.

The Government’s white paper includes ideas for significant reform which are intended to simplify plan making and the planning application process. These include proposals to grant automatic outline planning permission for development specified in the local plan and to expand the use of LDOs. However, if local planning authorities are not adequately resourced then attempts to simplify the system for developers which shift resource risk from applicants onto local planning authorities could create further delays. The government should be focused on ensuring that local planning authorities can make plans and grant planning permission as efficiently, democratically and transparently as possible. Tinkering with the process without also providing adequate resources and support will not achieve the desired results.

This piece is a summary of a longer article which appeared in this report by a group of planning academics.

This is part of a series of blogs on this topic – to view block series please click here.

Views expressed by the author may not represent the views of CaCHE


Date: November 11, 2020 11:28 am


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