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Opinion: Tories Right to Simplify Planning – Laws Are a Messy Maze of Frustrating Nonsense

Published on: 15 Oct, 2020
Updated on: 16 Oct, 2020

By David Roberts

Credit where credit’s due. Despite being a combination of dogmatism and incompetence, the government is not wrong to want a radical reform of the national planning system.

And Tory county councillors are not wrong to want to bring planning under a single authority. On both counts, their proposals for doing this are poor. But they are not wrong.

A trivial example will illustrate this. To widen my front drive by three feet has just taken two years.

In 2018, as a sort of masochistic experiment, I took the fateful decision to follow the rules. The official procedure took forever.

Living on a B road, I needed planning permission from Guildford Borough Council, followed by a “crossover licence” from the highways authority, Surrey County Council. In the end, this cost me £1,000, plus £3,000 for the build.

Many of my neighbours have just called in a local builder and got the job done within days at a fraction of the cost. I could even have done it myself.

But once on the path of virtuous citizenship there was no turning back. I was on the radar of not just one but two local authorities and had no alternative but to press to the bitter end.

The process is not set out clearly. A crossover licence, in effect, a re-run of the initial planning application, comes as a surprise to applicants who think they’ve finished by getting planning consent.

The first step was bad enough. You have to pay for scale maps and drawings. The county council’s own maps are public property and free online but, inexplicably, are disallowed, and my first application was rejected.

Jargon is required. My drive became a “crossover”, a ditch became a “culvert”. You must either hire a consultant, or (as I did) learn to ape planning’s silly terminology and rituals.

First, I had to fend off a demand for profile drawings of my “project”, explaining that a driveway has no profile. Next came a worrying demand for a professional flood-risk assessment. Remember, this was for five square metres of concrete.

All the skills learnt during 33 years in Whitehall were poured into diverting the planners off this threatening idea. The face-saver, after the matter had been submitted through two layers of bureaucracy at Millmead, was to attach a condition to the final planning consent: I must submit a comprehensive strategy for maintaining the ditch (sorry, culvert) into the future.

The common-sense response to this was obvious: “I promise to put on my wellies and periodically clear out the weeds and leaves like I’ve done for the past 25 years.” So I produced a four-page disquisition designed to bore the authorities into submission.

From reciting ad nauseam sections of the relevant laws and regulations to speculating on the applicability of the Talweg system (Google it), I left no stone unturned. I have no idea whether Guildford planners recognised this as a gigantic leg-pull, but it worked: permission was granted.

Next, Surrey Highways. A site visit by two engineers was arranged. The senior one sucked his teeth and helpfully said he thought the whole drive should be demolished and moved five metres to the north, invalidating my planning permission and costing ten times as much.

With difficulty, I was obliged to argue the merits of my scheme versus the alternative of paving over my flowerbed with 30 square metres of concrete (imagine the flood risk).

Weeks elapsed with no word from County Hall. Had I committed the fatal error of offending the engineers? Had I cringed insufficiently, or pussy-footed with less than full conviction?

Respectful emails were dispatched to my county councillor Julie Iles (who was helpful), and to the lead councillor for highways, Matt Furniss (no reply). Truthfully if sanctimoniously, I pointed out that the only reason I was putting myself through all this torture was to improve road safety, a public good, on my stretch of street.

Surrey’s HS2-style counter-proposal melted away. The magic “crossover licence” was granted.

But I was still amid the maze. In its wisdom, for all the A and B roads in the county, Surrey limits the applicant’s choice of builder to 17 “approved contractors”, some from Kent and Sussex. Councillors would not answer my concerns about their status, or why scores of perfectly able Surrey builders should not be allowed a piece of the action.

Of the 17, three refused the job, while the rest just didn’t reply. When I nagged one of them for an answer, he instantly complained about me to Surrey Highways, a reaction that seemed to combine contempt for the customer and a cosy relationship with the council.

In fact, Surrey insisted they, not I, were the client, requiring me to pay the full construction cost to them up front, and sitting on my £3,000 for four months while warning that the final build might never actually be approved.

By dint of more pressure from councillors, an approved contractor finally did the job in just two days and (to my astonishment) was approved by the inspector on day three. My front drive is a tiny bit wider and safer but looks just the same as it did before; two years of pain and avoidable cost poured into two, 18-inch strips of concrete.

The moral of this tale, at the risk of being detained under the Terrorism Act, is clear: the planning system is dysfunctional and needs a giant bomb put under it and the whole ingrown priesthood of planners and consultants that feed off it.

In its present form it makes fools of ordinary residents who follow the rules and rewards big developers who flout or manipulate them. In the Tory planning White Paper and proposal for a single Surrey council, they have got the answers hopelessly wrong.

But they are right to want total change. Why can’t other parties offer better proposals?

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test 2 Responses to Opinion: Tories Right to Simplify Planning – Laws Are a Messy Maze of Frustrating Nonsense

  1. Peta Malthouse Reply

    October 17, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    David Roberts’ sad story sadly bears no relation to the “bog-standard” sort of application for planning permission that most make. I suspect, because he needed to bridge a ditch, there were flood prevention aspects. These do not appear in the usual applications and are not all covered by Planning Law.

    The complexity he refers to is unlikely to be ironed out by the new policy. Any complexity in the planning law we have today has been put there by successive Tory Governments in power since 2010. This included two versions of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) plus changes to the General Development orders, all intended to speed up the planning process by ignoring local guidelines completely.

    The thing is that the “Big 5” builders have, for years, been putting their case that they cannot build more houses because they can’t get planning permission. But as these columns and previous letters show that is simply not true. Planning permissions have been granted and land with and without permissions have been land-banked in order to artificially swell the price of homes when they are sold.

    Planning policies developed by the government are intended, it is claimed, to provide a mix with “affordable homes”. These have been re-defined over these last 10 years to make me ask, affordable by whom?

    Some policy changes have been made to address the concerns raised by the developers around profitability. This claim can also be used partway through the project when, on grounds of viability, applications are submitted to vary the original permission and reduce the affordable percentage of homes in a scheme.

    We have only to see the example given concerning Mr Jenryk who gave permission for a development in London to a Conservative party donor before regulations would require a larger Section 106 payment to go to the local authority. Mr Jenryk later accepted his decision had been unlawful.

    To see how successful these house builders can be just look at their declared profits year on year. We need more oversight by local authorities, not less. Just remember the figures about the utilization of Guildford green belt in our most recent Local Plan. This was pushed through by Tory councillors who promised to protect our green belt, then gave more away of it than was required.

    In many borough wards, we voted for Residents for Guildford and Villages in the following elections in response to this deceit. Now the government wants to centralise all the decision making. I wonder why?

  2. Ben Paton Reply

    October 18, 2020 at 8:06 am

    Simplification is not quite the right word.

    The case of Mr Roberts’s driveway perfectly illustrates the obsession with nominal compliance with arbitrary rules and complete strategic myopia.

    Where does the problem lie? With the rules? or with the people who interpret the rules and how they interpret them?

    Mr Roberts’ driveway demonstrates how the people in the system exercise their judgement. In the case of a private driveway, discretion is used to be pernickety. In the case of the ‘big stuff’ – like where to put a new town or how to improve the road system discretion is exercised to facilitate politically motivated objectives eg new towns in the wrong places.

    This private driveway is a small scale instance of a Yes Minister theme: the civil servants who “kiss up” to the politicians and kick down on the public.

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