Prior Approval: he shoots, he scores, or does he?

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prior approval

Mark Thackeray, Principal Consultant, Walsingham Planning asks if prior approval has helped or hindered the planning system

When the coalition government decided to make development control a “Noddy and Big Ears” sort of business, easy to understand, even by development control officers, their plan was to make everything Permitted Development. We were going to have new housing, converted from each and every land use that was not housing to start with. Huge extensions to houses, factories, warehouses and loads of other freebies that would make the junior DC officer’s role redundant, except for their regular losing battle trying to understand and apply the Advert Regs. Said planners could be diverted to local plans, in an effort to get the Development Plan finished by 2011, no 2012, oh all right 2015, last chance 2017.

General Permitted Development Order (GPDO)

Of course, it didn’t happen. What sort of idiot was it who thought the planning system should be or could be simple? Had he/she never been a planning consultant or DC officer, desperate to maintain a degree of mystery about what they do? How could it possibly work if the GPDO ((General Permitted Development) (England) Order) was written by Enid Blyton? Regular readers will know that the government were persuaded, instead, to make the system more complicated, rather than less so, by introducing into the team the “holding midfielder”, Prior Approval. He was an untested, probably foreign player whose role was to slow things down, put his foot on the ball and stop all the long-ball nonsense that the previous Director of Football wanted to play.

So, how has he done? His transfer has been made permanent, he’s a regular player, but has the new system worked? Do we have a Leicester City on our hands, burning bright for a season and mediocre in the difficult second, or are we still Sunderland without Big Sam? (say no more).

If the new GPDO changes of use system, post-Prior Approval, were a success, would Martin Goodall’s recent volume “A Practical Guide to Permitted Changes of Use” really need to be 341 pages long? Would it be needed if “Enid” had, after all, re-written the GPDO?

Setting aside the ongoing crisis over new-build housing, DCLG figures for 2015/16 suggest that 12,800 homes were created through offices converting to residential use, so that sounds like a promising start, notwithstanding that 10,400 homes were demolished in the same period. The first figure is actually on the low side, mainly because, as it’s PD and as there is not yet a requirement for a Register of PD applications, no-one really knows how many conversions have actually taken place or how many are in the pipeline. What’s more, we can’t tell whether Prior Approval has been a hindrance or a help in this process because the figures don’t tell us how many PA submissions were rejected. The third option, under Class W (11) of the GPDO, is even more of a mystery, because, if the LPA makes no decision in eight weeks, the Permitted Development conversion can take place anyway, probably with no record until Council Tax catches up.

Has prior approval made a difference?

The DCLG data shows 30,600 dwellings created through changes of use, but not how many involved Prior Approval and how many needed planning permission. It’s all a bit hit and miss.

Top of the pile for office conversions is Croydon, with nearly 600. Well done them, though it probably just tells us that they built too many offices in the 1980s.

If the jury is still out on the numbers game, there remains a good deal of concern among local authorities over the loss of affordable housing, the loss of s106 contributions, the quality of the resultant accommodation and the surprising number of agricultural buildings that are suddenly capable of residential use.

12,800 new dwellings would, on a good day, give up over 5000 affordable units and vast sums to spend on classrooms, library books and a swanky system to tell you that your bus is late. The loot has been diverted, and, while most of the new dwellings will be in the rented sector, control is clearly lacking as to their allocation and, maybe, their quality. The planning office has no control over the size of the dwellings and no authority to determine a PA submission on the basis of housing size, mix, quality or tenure, but, if they did, you might as well require a full application.

Quality control

The lack of quality control in the PA system does not seem to stop planning authorities from turning down more PD/PA agricultural conversions than they support. 226 new dwellings in a year has got to be a disappointment. Of course, some of the prospective dwellings were a couple of beams held up by string and their “conversion” was not too far from a total rebuild. Newer rules, which overcame the usual presumption that rural buildings were, by definition, in unsustainable locations, have tightened up on the rules as to what “conversion” actually means.

So, has Prior Approval been worth the inflated transfer fee, or would team Planning have been better off with another free-wheeling midfielder creatively passing the PD ball to the striker to score a tap in? (Grealish to Kodjia – GOAL). Early days, perhaps he needs another season, but you’d have to say that, so far, Prior Approval has not yet proven his worth. He’s confusing planners, slowing down the game, compared to the original “free PD” idea and he’s doing no favours to Council finances or affordable housing targets. What price on a re-think when the team next gets a new manager? 2017?

Mark Thackeray BSc DipTP MRTPI

Principal Consultant

Walsingham Planning

mark.thackeray@walsingplan.co.uk

www.walsinghamplanning.co.uk

@Town_Planners

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