Development and Planning legislation

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Thursday 22 January 2004 1.45pm
All

As '18 years and counting' has moved away from the origins of the thread I thought it might be useful to consider the context of development.

As I understand current national legislation:

1 - Anyone can make a planning application for a particular piece of property or land. They don't have to own it to make the application.

2 - When an application is made, the applicant does not have to disclose any adjacent ownership. The corollary of this is that there is no requirement for the Planning Authority to undertake adjacent ownership enquiries.

3 - There is no mechanism to force owners with multiple adjacent interests to amalgamate them in the planning process.

4 - When an application has been considered and, under due process, approved, there is nothing to stop the applicant, if they own the property, selling the property with the 'added value' of the consent.

5 - A successful planning application is the approval of a use rather than the approval of a design and there is nothing to stop a new owner, as in 4 above, taking the use and applying it to another design. Equally, there is nothing to stop a new owner seeking, through due process, to vary the consent if they seek a different objective.

6 - Company law allows the sale or transfer of company assets (which can include beneficial planning consents).

7 - If a Local Authority attempts to impose local legislation which significantly alters the impact of dominant national legislation it immediately opens itself to action.

On a more general point, it is instructive to face up the the realities of the development process. Developers have tightly defined objectives which could, with few exceptions, generally be described as 'the intention to make money', just like any other business. Their consideration of peripheral matters (community concerns, design quality, build quality) are generally secondary to that principle focus, which is why architects don't make good developers.

The Local Authority, by comparison, must weigh an application against many, sometimes conflicting factors. National and local legislation generally assumes in favour of development, an assumption based upon the reality that society will change over time. In many cases, existing residents are suspicious of or don't want change. They know their patch, maybe even don't like it, but want it to remain as they have known it.

Social change has created a significant increase in demand for housing. The increase in divorce rates means that there are significantly more, and larger, second families. There is also an increase in single parent families. There is also an increase in younger people living on their own (ie leaving the family home earlier). There is also continuing social and economic pressure to buy property. All of these changes result in the demand from house builders for higher building densities which existing communities often see as a threat.

Against this demand for density, we must face the fact that land is a finite resource and therefore the idea of the suburban idyll may be a thing of the past. If we build thoughtfully we can build homes which consume less energy both in construction, in use and in demolition. By the same token, we can build homes to higher densities, still short of those common in the borough in the early 1900s, but which enjoy far greater levels of amenity and comfort. In the north of Southwark we are also very lucky to have significant amounts of public open space which can act as a counterweight to the increased building density.

And at the heart of this balancing act is the Local Authority, under constant pressure to reduce costs and give a better service whilst responding to a planning application in 8 weeks flat, including consultation. I'd describe that as a tough gig and a thankless task.

I'd also note that Southwark's UDP is under review and if you want to seek changes, now is the time to do it. If you can see a way of changing things for the better, put it down on paper and put it into the process. Lobby for support from the decision makers.

'Doing it' is better than 'coulding it' or 'shoulding it'.

Regards to all.

Niall Connolly
Thursday 22 January 2004 2.56pm
Thanks Niall - that is really comprehensive. And it certainly puts the 'balancing act' of Southwark Council's planners into perspective.

I think I have phrased my question badly in the past and so here is a more specific example which I am sure you can answer - is it possible for Southwark Council to say to a particular proposal:

"I am sorry mr x of Sharkeley Developments, we will not give you planning permission unless you agree to put more 4 bedroom flats in and also to increase the size of the low cost office/retail space on the ground floor." ?

If that leaves them open to action (as in pt. 7 of your post above) then I suppose it isn't their fault, but if it is possible then why aren't they doing it?
Thursday 22 January 2004 8.32pm
Red Bus (name or just a number?)

Firstly, a caveat. I'm not a planner, I'm not trained or expert in the planning process and, finally, I believe that the generalities of the planning process apply to all Local Authorities.

You propose that a planning authority might say the following:
"I am sorry Mr X of Sharkeley Developments, we will not give you planning permission unless you agree to put more 4 bedroom flats in and also to increase the size of the low cost office/retail space on the ground floor."

In fact, that is exactly what usually happens within the process. The applicant (when they are a developer) rarely comes along with exactly what they want. Usually they ask for more and the planners negotiate them down against local and/or national policies and against the impact that the development is likely to have. For example, were a development to create 5,000 homes (very unlikely) the planning authority would have to consider the fiscal implications upon education, transport, amenities etc etc and require the developer to contribute appropriately towards that current and future cost. To a degree, those impacts and the cost of those impacts are considered in the planning process and the planning authority seeks contributions towards those costs either directly or indirectly.

Against those measurable impacts, the planning authority must also be mindful of the likely fallout if they were to refuse an application on less than sound grounds and then loose the appeal. Because the developer has more to loose in a refusal, they will immediately consider an appeal and will have funding for that process. Should the planning authority loose the appeal then the rate-payers will ultimately have to pick up the tab. So the planning authority cannot refuse or obstruct on a whim.

In the matter of what you refer to as "low cost office/retail" that is almost impossible to regulate or provide. Affordable housing, which has good definition in legislation, is hard enough to pursue. Low cost commercial space, unless a definition is established, a funding regime agreed and a regulatory management in place, would be almost impossible. And remember, in 1980 1/sqft for commercial space on Bermondsey St would have been expensive. Today 25/sqft is probably cheap. The definition of affordability is a variable feast.

In essence, the problem with the planning process is that, for most people, the process is invisible and unknown. Most people simply experience the change that results from the process and, for many people, change is uncomfortable so they don't like it. They want to hold someone responsible for their discomfort and, as it was the local authority who approved the change, the local authority gets the blame.

Its a lot tougher to look at our 'free market' and democratic system and accept that everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of their possessions, be they a sofa or a development site. Equally its hard, given the natural resistance to change, for people to accept or embrace change and then engage fully and reasonably in the debate about the nature of change.

Regards

Niall Connolly
Thursday 22 January 2004 10.19pm

Thanks again - I am learning a lot more about how it all works. I understand from what you have said that in my example question, Southwark Council have the responsibility and the ability to affect what is given planning consent to quite a large degree. Therefore they are actually to blame for a lot of the problems of bad development.

I am not anti-free market but I do believe in managed markets and in my experience Southwark Council is not doing a good job of managing the development market in this area.

I was co-ordinator of the Bankside Residents Forum back in 2001/2 and the dealings I had with Southwark Council Planning seemed to me to reveal a council often unable to manage the range and scope of development in this area.

I think you are wrong about the impossibility delivery of "low cost office/retail" as some of this has in principle been achieved as part of the St Christopher's House deal (although only a small amount).

I say again, Southwark Council has been unimaginitive in its dealings with developers (and its allocation of s106 or planning gain too, but that's another moan). It may be that it is no more unimaginitive than other councils but that is hardly an excuse.

I suppose the one mitigating factor is that, as you say, it runs the risk of losing appeals to really bad developments if it takes too tough a line on developers (e.g. Tate Tower) - so maybe I ought to cut the Council some slack.

Ta.
Thursday 22 January 2004 11.57pm
RB

I'd ask if you can quantify and describe what, in your view, qualifies as "bad development"? If you can then you can start to construct proposals to promote better development. If you can't then what you describe may just be that which you don't like.

I'd also say that blame is both easy and comfortable but not very constructive.

Regards

Niall Connolly
Friday 23 January 2004 11.26am

In a historic, diverse, and tightly knit area such as SE1, bad development is not so much as what the building looks like or what it is for but one where the result has an immediate negative effect on the surrounding area. If it produces pollution, needs heavy traffic to support it , overshadows it's neighbours, misunderstands the urban pattern, or stretches the existing resources on transport health or education, then it is bad.

I firmly believe that locally we have an opportunity to develop an area, which rather than be dormitory to the City and West End, is self sufficient in a whole range of housing, working shopping and entertainment. And there are elements of all of the above, all of which are of a world class standard and all within walking distance. That in itself is extraordinary in an area which until recently was dominated by large scale industrial usage, but opportunities to really change an area do not come often, and recently the developments have become singular in their outlook - and this is why I moaned about the amount of small apartments being built, at the expense of everything else.

Planning by its current nature of zoning and implimenting sweeping government policy statements, is far too clumsy a tool to deal with the area. It also tends to be negative and presciptive - you must not do this, or that, you must comply with this etc. The way forward has to be a more positive approach from Southwark - specific targets for developments which encourage a long term aim developed in a non-political way at local level. - and that might not be the same as my own beliefs, but by consensus would lead to a better development control
Tuesday 27 January 2004 12.03am
RS

The planning guidance for Southark, Southwark's UDP, is currently under review and in the consultation period. If you have any ideas or would like to comment then now is the time to do it.

Best wishes.

Niall

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