With Essex experiencing significant growth, the county’s councils have collaborated with housebuilders and developers to create a Planning Protocol that will support the delivery of more affordable, quality housing. Alethea Evans, principal planning consultant at Place Services at Essex County Council, explains how it came about
Essex is entering a phase of significant growth. Over the period between 2016 and 2036, the Greater Essex population is predicted to grow by almost 300,000, an increase of more than 16%. With a growing population comes a rise in the demand for housing and supporting infrastructure. Nationally, housing delivery has failed to keep pace with demand and Essex is no exception, with pockets of the county facing significant shortages of affordable and good quality housing.
The scale and pace of new development demands a commitment to delivery from both developers and local planning authorities. By early 2017, support began to gather pace for creating a Planning Protocol, a charter that would establish a commitment to constructive behaviour and actions between developers and planning departments across Essex.
With the support of the Local Economic Partnership, the protocol aimed to set the foundation for these parties to work together to deliver the growth needed for the county.
In autumn 2017, Graham Thomas, the chairman of the Essex Planning Officers’ Association (EPOA), representing the 12 districts/borough/city planning authorities and unitary authority of Southend-on-Sea, commissioned Place Services to undertake the project. Place Services was already delivering the new Essex Design Guide and had the resources and expertise required.
The project started with preparation of a draft document and the setup of a lean task and finish group, with members representing both the Essex Developers Group (EDG) and the local planning authorities. Drafts were shared with housing officers, developers, planning agents, legal representatives, strategic and development management planners, and elected members, with constructive input encouraged over a number of months. This engagement process was instrumental in identifying the common concerns regarding barriers to growth.
Four headline commitments emerged as mechanisms to support growth and have been incorporated into the final version, along with a commitment to review the protocol.
The final version of the Protocol was endorsed by the EPOA at their March meeting and subsequently by the chairman of the EDG representing developers, agents and the legal teams involved in development delivery across Essex.
The Protocol includes commitments under four broad headings: communication, certainty and consistency, resources and training. One of the key features is a commitment to the use of Planning Performance Agreements to achieve a more efficient and effective application process. These are not currently used by every local planning authority in Essex so this commitment represents a significant change.
The main aims of the Protocol are:
- Delivery, through the planning process, of the environment for quality and sustainable growth in Essex to strive to meet the county’s employment and housing needs.
- Providing increased efficiency and certainly in the planning process for communities and developers.
- A shared approach, which will be periodically reviewed, to measure its implementation and effectiveness and ensure that it continues to reflect current best practice.
Implementing the Planning Protocol is incumbent on the endorsing bodies; we must all work to fulfil our commitments and to hold each other to account in delivering development.
The Planning Protocol forms part of a suite of initiatives being driven by the EPOA aimed at supporting and delivering growth in Essex. It is recognised that Essex is a pro-growth area and this needs to be of a good quality. We are planning for balanced growth, which means homes, jobs and the environment, and these areas need to be in the right places and supported by good quality infrastructure. We need to be able to deliver policy-compliant development that has the right level of infrastructure and affordable housing. No longer can the public purse fund the infrastructure that should be funded by the development.
Graham Thomas explained: “By working with housebuilders and developers, we need to be able to deliver growth in the right places at the right time and built to a good standard. The next step is to address development viability through a Development Viability Supplementary Planning Document.”
The new Essex Design Guide was launched in February. As the UK’s first interactive web-based design tool, it will receive ongoing updates to ensure the content remains contemporary and effectively responds to the challenges and opportunities for Essex.
In June, EPOA endorsed their Viability Protocol. This sets out overarching principles for how local planning authorities across Greater Essex will approach development viability.
The protocol aims to provide applicants with greater clarity and guidance on the application of planning policy; inform applicants of the council’s approach to assessing and validating Viability Appraisals and help minimise delays in determining planning applications. The protocol does not alter existing policies but provides additional advice on the information requirements and approaches that local authorities intend to apply when assessing viability.
Principal Planning Consultant
Place Services at Essex County Council
Tel: +44 (0)333 013 6840