Planning without end

The Urban Idiot’s law of planning states that the level of objections raised by a planning authority to a submitted plan is a constant and bears no relationship to the quality of the scheme.

The idiot was recently invited to talk to a group of students about a masterplan that had first been commissioned in 2003.  All being well, subject to the discharge of the last few conditions and no other unforeseen circumstances, work should start on site sometime next year (2022). It is a scheme for a large mixed-use development on the edge of the city centre in a major provincial city. The site is part owned by the council and the scheme is entirely in line with the Council’s brief for the site and with planning policy. The  students were therefore entirely within their rights to ask what on earth have you been doing for the last 18 years?

Of course during that time there has been a global recession and more recently a pandemic. One developer went bust and one major potential occupier pulled-out – in other words shit happened. But a large chunk of the time has been eaten-up by a planning system that has become so tortuous and convoluted that even council-supported schemes are mired for years.

It’s like there is a quota of planning objection that needs to be filled

The planning system is absolutely focussed on doing the right thing. It has also generated a huge industry of consultants (including the Idiot) who have a vested interest in perpetuating its complexity and delay. But like much urban idiocy, best intentions don’t always lead to best outcomes.

The Idiot’s first involvement was a small consultancy for the council to look at the potential of the site (6 months). This was turned into a development brief and put out to the market. Using some nifty footwork the Idiot managed to jump ship and ended up working with, what turned out to be, the successful bidder (1 year in).

There followed a year or so of legal, as a development agreement was thrashed-out (2 years in) following which the Idiot was appointed along with a team of consultants to work on an outline planning application. This took just over two years and £4M of fee (most of which, to the Idiot’s chagrine, went to technical consultants). A host of studies were commissioned looking at; ecology, archaeology, unexplored bombs, bats, flood risk, visual impact, traffic generation, disabled access, social impact, schools, wind modelling, noise etc… Architects were engaged to work on each of the buildings along with public realm designers and community engagement consultants.

As all of these consultants laboured away, the scheme became locked into a holding pattern. Each time changes were made in response to a request from the planners,  appraisals were run leading to further changes, which in turn had to be put back to the planners etc…  Despite the  plan being exactly what the planners had specified in the brief they seemed to act on the assumption that the developer was pulling a fast one and needed to be taken down a peg or two.

This led to the Idiot’s Law of Planning. This states that the level of objections raised by a planning authority to a submitted plan is a constant, and bears no relationship to the quality of the scheme. It’s like there is a quota of planning objection that needs to be filled. If there are not enough major issues of concern, the quota will fill up with small ones which are nevertheless treated just as seriously.

Anyway back to the story… eventually a planning application was submitted (4 years in) comprising of a mountain of documentation. Somewhere buried deep beneath all the verbiage, was the idiot’s masterplan Version 143 (or thereabout). There followed many months while the application was considered including presentations to the council’s design panel and planning committee before eventually being approved – it being entirely in line with planning policy after all (5 years in). This heralded the start of a further 12 months to agree the Section 106 agreement (6 years in).

Of course, this meant that we were in the teeth of the Credit Crunch and all of the scheme appraisals were rendered worthless (literally). Another year was taken up making changes to the scheme to try and keep it viable in the face of a global recession before the developer collapsed into bankruptcy and everything ground to a halt (7 years in). The bank found itself holding assets worth a fraction of what they had lent to the developer and started looking at a possible fire sale.

Meanwhile the ever-agile Idiot had found a new client! This was a second developer who happened to own part of the site and approached the council with a view to taking over the development agreement. After another few years of three-way negotiation between the council, the new developer and the bank, terms were agreed, and the planning process started once more (9 years in).

The Idiot was retained as an advisor as work began on a new masterplan. Two more years passed including the usual technical studies: ecology, archaeology, unexploded bombs, bats, flood risk, visual impact, traffic generation, disabled access, social impact, schools, wind modelling, noise etc… before a new outline planning consent was ready (11 years in) which then spent nearly a year in the system and another year negotiating S106 (13 years in).

Another few years of negotiations with occupiers, amendments to the scheme, reserved matters applications and we found ourselves just over 16 years in and at the start of a global pandemic. So, when work finally starts next years it will have been 18 years of solid work and millions of pounds of fees with absolutely nothing to show on site. Around half of this time will have been taken up by the planning system.

The thing is, this scheme is one of the lucky ones because it does at least look like there might actually be a start on site – most masterplans don’t get so far. The UK is littered with masterplans that were entirely in-line with policy, and even backed by local authorities, that have found themselves strangled to death by the planning system. Even the ones that get through often find that the delay means that the property market has changed and they are no longer viable. There must be a better way!

This gets one thinking about the notion of ‘a fast track to beauty’ as suggested by the Bugger Better Build Beautiful Commission (or whatever it was called). The planning White Paper also talks about Deemed Consent for schemes like the one above that are in growth or renewal areas and are policy compliant.

Of course there will be niggling questions like what we mean by beautiful and how do we know its policy compliant? But putting aside such small details for a moment the Idiot is reminded of the answer given by a scientist last year when asked how it was possible to develop a COVID vaccine in 9 months when it normally takes a decade. The answer was that those ten years are largely spent on funding bids, bidding rounds, academic committees and bureaucracy. If you strip this back to the time spend actually developing and testing a vaccine then its quite possible to do in 9 months. The same is true of planning, fast track or not, if we could reduce the process to the bit that matters, then 18 years could become 2 without compromising quality.  

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CategoriesUrban Idiocy

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