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Call for debate

Call for debateRobin Shepherd examines the current and future planning system in Wales.

Context

The planning system in Wales has changed greatly over the past few years. Since devolution of planning powers to the Welsh Assembly, the policies and legislation in Wales have become increasingly different to those found in England.

England’s planning system has become significantly more complex over the past 6 years since the Planning Act in 2004, which introduced Local Development Frameworks – a suite of planning documents that could be more readily updated allowing a more flexible and responsive development planning process.

In contrast, Wales has retained a single development plan document – the Local Development Plan (LDP). In addition, the requirements for material supporting planning applications in Wales has, until more recently been considered to be less onerous than experienced on the (arguably) less beautiful side of Offa’s Dyke.

Recent changes

However, the past two years have seen this change, with the introduction in Wales of sustainable building policy legislation requiring Code for Sustainable Homes and BREEAM compliance. The sustainability and green energy agenda is now at the heart of the planning system in Wales, placing greater burdens upon the development industry in Wales – ahead of England.

In addition, the LDP system in Wales has been fraught with problems and delays as local planning authorities grapple with the requirements of the new system.

A review of the planning system has recently been undertaken by the Welsh Assembly – to consider how the system can be streamlined to assist the economic recovery. However, this only considered the planning application process and any recommendations for change can therefore only address part of the problem.

Fundamentally, for the larger, more complex, developments in Wales – in essence anything beyond householder and minor developments – the system will inevitably remain as a series of moving hurdles to jump, as the scope of issues to consider increases, policies change and new legislation is brought into force.

Deep rooted issues

Whilst some may argue that there is a lack of resources and skills to implement the increasingly complex system, I believe the issues are more deep rooted than this. The perils of seeking to implement often controversial proposals for development and change through a political process, will inevitably result in problems and delays as decisions are found unpalatable or too difficult to make. The recent problems in Cardiff, where the LDP has had to be abandoned, (due to the LDP Inspectors highlighting serious concerns at an early stage over the soundness of the draft plan), is evidence of the fact that greenfield development is still often considered a no-go area for vote-winning and highly controversial, despite the need for new homes.

The question therefore arises as to whether there is a need for a wholesale culture change, or a far more radical change in direction. Labour’s approach has, in recent years, been to take the more complex and controversial decisions away from the local planning process, as evidenced by the introduction of binding Inspector’s Reports for LDP’s and the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

However, despite this, claims are being made that the UK has the lowest levels of home building since the 1st World War. Few would therefore be able to argue that the current system is delivering what is needed, given the immense shortfall in housing (in particular affordable housing) across Wales and the UK.

A need for wholesale change?

Is a more wholesale change to the planning system therefore required as opposed to tweaking at the edges to improve the current system?

The Tories would argue yes. The Tory Planning Green Paper argues that the current system is broken and that a radical new approach is required, advocating the ‘localism’ agenda, whereby communities will be incentivised to work with developers to secure new development in their locality and the benefits that may arise. The top-down approach of Government imposing development upon communities would be halted and replaced with an approach whereby communities would volunteer to accommodate new development and Local Plans would return with even greater force and weight.

Wales is seen as a good example of planning by the Tories, although those working within it may beg to disagree. Clearly such proposals, if implemented, would create even greater uncertainty and change to a system that is already struggling to implement changes brought into force some 6 years ago. The Welsh Assembly would, no doubt, place their stamp of influence upon such a new agenda and we don’t yet know how different the Tories, if elected nationally, would allow the Welsh planning system to be.

However, with the Assembly elections following the year after the national elections, there is unfortunately an uncertain future for planning and development in Wales at a time when the planning system should be helping to deliver much needed homes, (in particular affordable homes), and development as we build our way out of recession.

Objective debate

Whatever changes are proposed, it is critical that we do not lose sight of the real objectives of the planning system when looking at the details of the process to be used.

The planning system must be there to provide and deliver sustainable development – in the right place, in the right way and at the right time. The system must be charged with a proactive approach to creating successful places – providing for peoples basic needs for a place to live, a place to work, a place to learn, places to purchase goods and places to enjoy. Places that people will value and take pride in. Places that improve our lives, regenerate depriving communities and enhance the quality of our local and global environment.

What is therefore needed is a comprehensive debate – looking at how the planning system can be changed to focus on these objectives in a positive and proactive way. Only then can the planning system in Wales be expected to achieve what it set out to do. This debate could be led by the Welsh Assembly, but needs to involve those using the Welsh planning system from within the public and private sectors and seek to focus upon the core objectives of planning. The conclusions to this debate could be radical or simple – either way the conclusions are likely to be far reaching. The question is therefore whether there is the appetite for such a debate and sufficient commitment to deliver the changes required.

As Obama and his aides consider the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh in their approach to national security, the same could no doubt apply to the Welsh planning and development system:

‘Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming down stairs. But sometimes he thinks there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping a moment and think of it.’

A. A. Milne

Robin Shepherd is Director of Planning at the Cardiff office of Barton Willmore LLP, [email protected]


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