Plan early, plan better

Aurora Horwood

The importance of a fit for purpose planning system to the UK economy cannot be overstated. It is this that instructs the development of land and buildings, facilitates the infrastructure that is vital to ensuring the UK is an attractive place to invest, while also acting as an important stimulus to the regeneration of the UK’s economy.

For this reason, the current Coalition government has endeavoured to make the planning system work more efficiently and effectively. But there is another element involved in encouraging the timely resolution of planning matters. This is the importance of striking a balance between the needs of developers and housebuilders, and the wants and desires of local communities. Herein lies the challenge, of engaging with and stabilizing the varied demands of these different stakeholders.

Part of the problem is that historically, developers have not engaged with all the necessary stakeholders as effectively as they might have. Hence the findings from the CBI/KPMG Infrastructure Survey 2013, which reported that 96% of businesses still see planning as a barrier to development, despite the government’s efforts. So what can developers and businesses hoping to build in 2014 do to ensure the planning system does not prove an impediment to their growth?

Perhaps the most important solution was discussed at the British Property Federation and Local Government Association’s joint event last week titled ‘Plan early, Plan better’, where they launched two publications: ‘Planning positively through partnership’ and ’10 commitments for effective pre-application engagement’.

The dominant message was ‘the earlier you plan, the better the outcomes’. Moreover, the best way to ensure a smooth journey for planning development is to ensure that you get the pre-application process right. As part of this, they advised that all groups should consider engagement with local communities at the pre-application stage regarding development proposals.

Pre-application engagement between all interested parties is deemed the best way to speed the planning process, because it helps shape better quality developments that are more likely to win public and council support, along with improved outcomes for the community. One of the examples used to illustrate effective engagement was Great Portland Estates’ extensive consultation with Westminster Council and local stakeholders, which began at the earliest stages to progress the landmark regeneration development at Rathbone Place, W1.

The process involved numerous meetings with the Council, two design reviews, engagement with principal stakeholders and a public exhibition which Toby Courtauld – CEO of Great Portland Estates – described as “crucial for us to understand what matters to the community”. All of which contributed to the receipt of planning permission from Westminster Council in October 2013.

Steve Quartermain, Chief Planner at the Department for Communities and Local Government, also stressed the importance of effective pre-application engagement. This he argued, is important because it leads to four things; faster decisions, reduction in costs, high quality engagement and outcomes through plans.

Currently, pre-application engagement is only compulsory in certain instances. However, if a prospective applicant fails to engage at an appropriate level, this can lengthen the application process and increase costs. A recent example of what can happen when community stakeholders are not fully consulted on plans has been highlighted by the Southbank Centre’s scheme to redevelop the undercroft, which they are seeking to replace with retail units.

In response to these proposals, the Long Live Southbank campaign was launched in opposition, seeking to highlight the undercroft’s role as home to a diverse creative community of skateboarders, BMX riders and graffiti artists. It is a campaign that has been hugely successful in mobilising widespread opposition to the Southbank Centre’s plans. The campaign’s petition to Boris Johnson on change.org has been signed by over 63,000 people, and on 2 January 2014, they delivered a record-breaking 27,786 planning objections to Lambeth Council. Earlier this month, Boris Johnson – who has the ability to directly refuse the application thanks to his powers as Mayor of London – urged that, though he supports much of the Centre’s redevelopment plans, the Southbank skate park must stay.

While the Long Live Southbank campaign and the National Theatre continue to object, the future of the Southbank’s redevelopment scheme remains in the balance. In contrast, when it comes to planning applications, one thing is clear. Getting the pre-application process right and engaging effectively with relevant stakeholders can make a huge difference to the success of a planning application, as well as saving a lot of money.

Such active engagement facilitates a two way conversation, enabling the modification of plans to meet the needs and views of both local people and the developer. Moreover, if it allows the planning system to work more effectively as a tool to unlock economic growth and deliver much needed jobs and homes to the country, then it is something to be wholly encouraged.

Share this article