London planners voice worries over government reforms

Twice as many London planners believe a key government reform has failed to improve the planning process as those who think it has helped, according to a new survey. In a survey of 20 London boroughs carried out by Sitematch London, more than half (53 per cent) of planners said the National Planning Policy Framework has had no beneficial effects in their borough. This compared to 26 per cent who thought it had helped, and 21 per cent who were unsure.

The NPPF was introduced last year by the coalition government to simplify a raft of planning guidance, ministerial statements and circulars into one document.

But Heather Cheesbrough, assistant director of strategic planning, regeneration and economic development at London Borough of Hounslow said that the NPPF has introduced vagueness into the system. She said:

“The NPPF has brought simplification through a condensing of the quantum of planning guidance, although the document can be interpreted in different ways by different people in different places. This doesn’t necessarily make the process of planning simpler.”

And she added that effect of the introduction of the NPPF “pales into insignificance” against the introduction of permitted development rights on certain types of development, such as extensions “which completely undermine the ability of a planning authority to positively plan and regenerate places”.

And Steve Barton, planning policy manager at the London Borough of Ealing, said:

“As a planning practitioner it is difficult to reconcile the many varied, competing and contradictory messages that emit from government, which clearly wants to blame us for not delivering growth and development. But, in fact, it is the constant tinkering with the planning system that creates confusion and uncertainty and makes it more difficult for investment to come forward.”

The survey also discovered that almost three quarters (71 per cent) of planners believe the government’s neighbourhood planning policies are not helpful to the planning process. Only 12 per cent of those surveyed said that they thought it would provide a positive contribution.

Many respondents said that they thought that the system allowing communities to prepare neighbourhood plans would favour councils with wealthier communities.

A number of planning officers from disadvantaged boroughs commented that the better off tend to have more time to invest in neighbourhood planning, compared to people living more deprived areas.

Cheesbrough added:

“Planning professionals see neighbourhood plans at best as unnecessary with the potential to create disillusionment amongst communities on misdirected plan making initiatives, instead of encouraging widespread and focused community involvement.”

Toby Fox, managing director of 3Fox International, the company behind the Sitematch initiative, said:

“The survey makes a valuable contribution to the debate around the effectiveness of changes to planning legislation, which have been designed to simplify the process but, as the survey indicates, resulted in a system that leaves much open to debate. “We are stimulating some of that debate to help bridge the gap between the private and public sector, allowing developers to communicate directly with planning officers from local authorities, government departments and other public landowners”.