How we did it: Preparing a county-wide planning protocol

Planners and developers in Kent have drawn up an agreement to boost delivery of housing and jobs. John Geoghegan reports.

Teaming up: (left to right) chair of Kent Developers Group Nick Fenton, head of planning at Medway Council Dave Harris and Brian Horton of Kent Housing Group
Teaming up: (left to right) chair of Kent Developers Group Nick Fenton, head of planning at Medway Council Dave Harris and Brian Horton of Kent Housing Group

PROJECT: A Planning Protocol: Delivering Growth in Kent and Medway

ORGANISATION INVOLVED: Kent Developers Group, Kent Housing Group, Kent Planning Officers Group, Medway Council, Kent County Council, 13 district councils

Council planners and developers can often seem at odds when it comes to the planning system, particularly in meeting the housing shortage. However, across Kent, the two groups have come together to draw up a shared commitment to boost housing and jobs growth through improved performances.

The Kent and Medway Planning Protocol sets out a joint approach to planning and development by developers, planners and local authorities. It has been developed and agreed by all of the county’s district councils, the unitary council of Medway, Kent County Council, as well as Kent Developers Group, Kent Housing Group and Kent Planning Officers Group.

The document aims to deliver, through the planning process, an environment allowing "quality and sustainable growth" to meet Kent’s employment and housing needs. Kent County Council and Medway Council estimate that almost 200,000 new homes will need to be built over the next 20 years to house the county’s rising population, requiring a significant rise in annual delivery. The protocol’s second aim is to "provide increased efficiency and certainty in the planning process for communities and developers".

The document’s four commitments from signatories, includes providing resources "to deliver an efficient, high quality service". This involves applicants signing up to planning performance agreements "where appropriate" to finance council planning teams to process larger schemes.

The second commitment is "to promote training opportunities" for all groups, including members. The protocol also pledges better communication between parties and greater certainty and consistency throughout the process.

Its publication in December was praised by planning minister Gavin Barwell, who said: "It is fantastic to see local planning bodies working together in an innovative way to improve the planning process."

Dave Harris, head of planning at Medway Council and a member of Kent Planning Officers Group, says: "The development industry, the county, districts and unitary have been able to come up with a shared narrative in working together. Developers want certainty, commitment and communication from local authorities. Councils need resources to respond quickly and staff and members with the right ability and experience."

Harris says the impetus behind the protocol arose out of planners’ and developers’ common need to respond to the county’s high housing and job growth targets. According to the protocol, only 6,000 homes a year have been built in Kent in the past decade, against a current annual need of 10,000 homes.

Brian Horton of Kent Housing Group and director of housing and regeneration consultancy Horton Strategic says Kent’s growth agenda was not being fully achieved, adding: "We needed a more effective and joined-up approach to delivering quality development."

Nick Fenton, chair of Kent Developers Group, adds: "We recognised there was good practice in some areas but room for improvement in others. It was about seeing how we could pull together to find a better process inside and outside the council."

A key objective of the protocol is ensuring a good relationship between developers and authorities, says Horton. "A more adversarial environment can be a barrier to development but if we recast the relationship in more collegiate way, we can create opportunities."

While there have been protocols drawn up between developers and councils elsewhere in the country, Horton says Kent’s is the only one at this level that includes buy-in from a county council, a unitary and so many districts.

The "main challenge", says Fenton, was getting so many authorities to all agree to the commitments at the same time. Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, which is building a garden city in north Kent, is a further body that has recently signed up. Horton adds that getting "political buy-in" from council leaders and chief executives to back up the commitments was another test. "If there’s a commitment to resource the planning process, it’s essential that senior buy-in was there. If developers and officers did so in a vacuum, it wouldn’t have the strength that it does."

Though in its infancy, Harris says the protocol has had some success, citing developers that have been encouraged to sign up to planning performance agreements as a result.

Having secured the support of councils and developers, Fenton says the next step is to get statutory undertakers to sign up, saying that the Environment Agency and Natural England are both keen to get on board. Horton, a strategic advisor to the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), says the LEP is also keen to create similar protocols in neighbouring counties. "We are working with colleagues in Essex and East Sussex to prepare their own protocols," he says. "This is proving contagious."

In addition, Horton says there will be ongoing monitoring of the protocol’s effectiveness, adding: "It’s not just a document that will gather dust on a shelf."

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