Need to know: Environmental planning commitments versus reality

Breaches of commitments can go unnoticed, and there is a widespread disconnect between promises made in planning and outcomes. By Dominic Woodfield.

Environment: development commitments can be overlooked (pic: Greg_Men, Flickr)
Environment: development commitments can be overlooked (pic: Greg_Men, Flickr)

What is the issue with planning commitments?

While breaches of agreed working hours or noise levels may be quite obvious on construction sites, the same cannot be said of commitments to safeguard less easily noticed or measurable aspects of the
environment such as habitats, water quality and species.

Naïve or complacent perceptions about the efficacy of current systems for controlling the environmental impacts of construction do a disservice to both the planning system and the construction industry, at a time when their ability to deliver truly sustainable development is under question.

Are the problems with implementation systemic?

Standard approaches to project implementation often ‘build in’ points of potential failure in the transition from a planning permission to what actually happens on the ground. Particular problems include
disconnect between planning and construction teams and inadequate control over contractors.

With larger projects particularly, it is rare for the same individuals to see a project through both the consenting and implementation phases. Combined with handover processes that are often little more than a dump of paperwork, this leaves implementation teams often with no more than a vague notion of what was signed up to in order to achieve permission. Perceptions that the planning stage is ‘water under the bridge’ and sometimes also that consenting teams ‘don’t live in the real world’ can further compound the problem.

Are simplified documents a problem?

Complex documents submitted for planning and to discharge reserved matters or conditions are often over-simplified for procurement packages. Contractors can then end up quoting on the basis of an approach
that is much simpler and less restricted than the planning permission actually allows for.

When problems emerge later, the stage is set for arguments over contract variations and the related financial burden of meeting them. At that point, pressured project managers may feel obliged to weigh up the increasingly low risk of being on the end of enforcement action, against having to answer to their superiors about overspend.

What happens if commitments are ignored?

When planning commitments get overlooked or disregarded, the safety net for the environment most obviously comprises the various regulatory authorities. However, these are resource-stressed, now arguably more than ever.

Where scrutiny is applied at all, there is often a mismatch between the relative attention given to environmental issues as opposed to more obvious or quantifiable matters.

Loud complaints and natural surveillance from the public can do much to catch bigger and more obvious transgressions, but who picks up on the less tangible or obvious condition breaches unless a regulator is a) tasked to do this; b) has the necessary experience to understand what is required; and c) actually does it?

What can those in the planning and regulatory sectors do?

More public money for enforcement seems unlikely in the near future, but levies that are ring-fenced to individual projects
might help to give LPAs the option to contract out to independent expert scrutineers. Planners could also be more vigilant about throwaway or nebulous commitments.

A Construction Management Plan that states damaging activities will be sited away from sensitive receptors "where possible", or that "consideration" will be given to such receptors prior to commencing piling or concrete crushing, is close to worthless in reality.

Ensuring conditions are easily understood and enforceable, not overly complex, overlapping and repetitious, will also assist.


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