Evolution not revolution

The Welsh government may now have the power to institute a planning bill for the first time, but the country looks set to clarify and improve the current system rather than rip up the rule book once more.

Planning ahead: five planning authorities out of 25 in Wales have already adopted local development plans
Planning ahead: five planning authorities out of 25 in Wales have already adopted local development plans

Ever since the first Welsh Assembly elections in 1999, the Welsh planning system has been diverging from the English regime. But because primary legislative powers over planning have, until recently, rested with Westminster, there has been no dramatic break. Rather, the principality has been slowly introducing its own way of doing things.

Since 2004, Wales has had a separate system of local plan-making to England, through its local development plan (LDP) regime. The replacement of unitary development plans with LDPs was required by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

Like the English system of local development frameworks that was introduced by the same legislation, the LDPs were aimed at introducing consultation earlier in the process. At the time, Wales' serving environment minister Carwyn Jones said: "Many people do not realise what is in a local authority development plan until it is too late and they are affected by a planning application."

Unlike in England, however, the Welsh plans would be contained within a single document.

Some authorities that did not have a UDP in place were concerned that switching to LDP preparation would further prolong their period without a plan. As a result, the Welsh government decided to allow the 16 furthest down the line to complete their unitary plans, although some decided to switch to the LDP track immediately. Mark Newey, head of the Welsh government's plans branch, says that all but one of those authorities that continued with their UDPs have now adopted them and are preparing LDPs.

There is great variation in progress on the latter. Five planning authorities out of the 25 in Wales have already adopted LDPs, but the Welsh government does not expect complete LDP coverage until December 2014. The councils with UDPs already in place had a head start in preparing LDPs, but most have encountered obstacles that have slowed progress. As part of their LDP delivery deals, authorities agreed a timetable with the Welsh government, all but six of which have now been revised, with the agreement of both parties, to allow councils more time to submit their documents.

Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) planning policy officer Craig Mitchell says: "With the LDP process, everything has to be evidence-based and that involves a lot of effort." Malcolm Hockaday, chairman of planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, says that because the process was new, "it is unsurprising that councils found it difficult to estimate the amount of work" that it would require.

Some LDP delays were down to external factors. Consulting the public early on brought its own difficulties. Mitchell says that, in many cases, it was difficult to get buy-in from those affected by the plans. He says: "The problem with frontloading is that the public wants to see lines on maps, which don't appear until much later in the process." He also blames sensationalist reporting by the local press for provoking opposition and causing further hold-ups.

Another hiatus was caused by Wales' local elections in 2008. Newey says that the number of independent councillors elected, in north Wales particularly, caused a slowdown in the preparation of some plans. "Where you get a change from Labour to Conservative or vice versa, generally there is a bit of continuity," he says. "But where independents are running councils or have a lot of strength, these areas have proved more unpredictable."

A further obstacle has been court challenges. In June 2009, Vale of Glamorgan Council was hit by an application to the High Court in Cardiff for a judicial review of part of its plan. Developers Persimmon Homes and Barratt Homes complained about the process leading to the exclusion of one of their sites from those earmarked for housing land in Vale of Glamorgan's submitted document. The judge dismissed the case in March 2010, but the time taken fighting the case compounded a number of other factors in delaying the plan's delivery timetable.

Cardiff Council had been making good progress on its LDP, and submitted the document to an inspector in 2009. But in a pre-inquiry meeting in February last year, the inspector raised concerns that the plan would not meet its housing target due to its aim of building only on windfall sites - those that unexpectedly become available for development - and brownfield sites. Taking the inspector's broad hints that the report would not make it through an inquiry, the council returned to the drawing board.

Following this move, Cardiff's leader, Rod Burman, blamed the whole LDP system for being flawed. "There is no mechanism for agreeing the needs of the wider region between different local authorities," he said. "LDPs are judged in isolation." But Newey says there is little prospect of the Welsh government producing regional plans to allocate housing numbers. He says that the onus is still on authorities to agree numbers between themselves.

However, despite teething problems with the LDP process and Burman's noisy repudiation of the system, there is broad consensus that the LDP regime has a lot going for it. Certainly, nobody interviewed for this feature agreed with Burman that the system needs to be replaced. That is perhaps just as well, because following a successful referendum on devolution earlier this year - which gave Wales the power to make laws in 20 areas including planning - Welsh ministers are now free to rip up the Welsh planning system and start again.

But while the Welsh government has said that it will bring forward a planning bill within the current term, it is unlikely to fundamentally change the LDP system. It is now reviewing the LDP process, which it expects to be complete by the spring and which could lead to some modest revisions to the guidance. But Newey says the regulations themselves are unlikely to be overhauled.

Pressure for the new bill had been growing in the past year, not least from the environment and sustainability committee in the Welsh Assembly. In a January report, it said that such a bill would "consolidate the existing planning legislation and recognise the distinctive needs of a system for Wales".

The Welsh government's intention for the bill is not to create a radically new planning system. Its stated aim is to produce a system that is both transparent and accessible; qualities that have been increasingly notable by their absence in recent years.

Since the process of devolving power from London to Cardiff began, Wales has been governed by a mix of regulations emanating from Cardiff and London. In 2006, Wales was given powers to make laws in several policy areas, including town planning, although the process required Whitehall approval and, in practice, no primary planning legislation has been forthcoming.

But the powers also gave the Welsh government the ability to pick and choose which bits of UK legislation and regulations it would adopt in its devolved policy areas, which has caused some confusion. For instance, Wales now has different use class definitions from England, different rules for householder planning applications and different planning fee structures. RTPI Wales' Willmott says: "It is not easy to find out the information you need to discover what rules apply on which side of the border."

The proposed new planning bill is therefore intended to bring clarity, with developers and the public alike only needing to consult Welsh planning documents when considering a project in Wales and English documents in England.

However, even if a new planning bill is passed, Wales will still be powerless over laws affecting the sector that are not contained in town planning legislation. The Welsh government cannot opt out of the Community Infrastructure Levy, for instance, because tax-raising powers are not a devolved matter and so are under the Treasury's remit. The same applies to powers over planning decisions on large-scale power projects, covered by the UK's Electricity Act 1989.

Pressure to devolve powers in these areas is likely to be sustained. But for now, there seems genuine optimism about the prospects for a clearer, Welsh-focused set of planning rules. Despite some initial hiccups, the LDP system has given the Welsh a taste of self-determination, and they seem to like it. With a new planning bill on the horizon, the process of devolution in Welsh planning is nearly complete.


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