It got off to a shaky start. The updated planning system was thrown off course this summer by the Planning Inspectorate's verdicts of "unsound" on the Lichfield and Stafford core strategies.
The immediate reaction was one of shock, bewilderment and a pervading fear among practitioners that they would have to go back to the drawing board with their own documents. But the system now seems to have entered calmer waters. The first sound verdicts have been delivered on new-style local development frameworks (LDFs) and a clutch of good practice work is emerging from stakeholders.
The Planning Officers Society (POS) has been working for almost two years on a learning and dissemination project that has involved ten authorities in identifying good practice and sharing ideas. POS Enterprises general manager Andrew Wright has been overseeing the scheme. "It has been very fruitful", he says. "We have been picking up experience on different parts of the system. Not everyone is doing the same work at the same time."
Two of the authorities involved, Horsham and Hambleton, have recently gone through their core strategy public examinations. Wright has noted some useful lessons. "In both local authorities planners are also responsible for the community strategy," he says. "This shows how the links are moving closer together in a lot of authorities. It does not matter whether the community planning function is in the forward planning team. What matters is that planners and people doing community planning are working closely together."
Wright says the Lichfield and Stafford verdicts "rattled people's confidence" and believes it was important to get some visible sign of success in the aftermath. Verdicts of soundness have duly been delivered, starting with Maidstone Borough Council's development plan documents (DPDs) on affordable housing and open spaces (Planning, 13 October, p1). More recently inspectors have endorsed core strategies for South Cambridgeshire (Planning, 27 October, p1) and South Hams (Planning, 17 November, p2).
Wright predicts that the system will settle down eventually now that more and more sources of best practice are emerging. "Intelligent reading" of the Lichfield and Stafford inspectors' reports will help planners elsewhere, he adds. "The biggest message is that people have got to believe and accept that it is a very different system. They must get to grips with the new concepts and master them," he insists.
In providing guidance and pointers on the key principles of the revised system, the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) has been deeply involved in disseminating best practice since its inception. It has been involved in the DCLG-funded spatial plans in practice (SPIP) study, led by Baker Associates and others, which will be producing briefing and research notes on the new system over the next few months.
The PAS website contains a wealth of information on various aspects of the system and its potential benefits. Its "delivering the vision" case study report "sets out the bigger picture", explains principal consultant Jackie Leask. "It helps set the context for local authorities to give pointers because there is a huge amount of guidance out there. We are trying to bring a focus to all of that work," she explains.
The service's standard self-assessment tool kit is another practical initiative that aims to help local authorities to take DPDs forward. "Hopefully this will help to them avoid any pitfalls of process or soundness as they go along," says programme manager Ed Watson. PAS guidance ranges from generic material, such as how LDFs can be linked in with councils' corporate vision, to case studies on matters such as project management training.
The relatively new concept of spatial planning underpins the changes to the system and is a key element of the culture change agenda in planning.
But it has also proved to be one of the main stumbling blocks. "There is a lack of understanding of what spatial planning looks like and how you do it," claims Watson. "There is a lot of advice on what it should look like but it has sometimes fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the Stafford and Lichfield results have helped highlight the differences between land-use and spatial planning."
A briefing produced as part of the SPIP study outlines the key ways in which the spatial planning approach can be used to draw up core strategies.
It outlines how they "should set out what needs to be done, where and by whom to achieve the overarching objectives" of the council. "It is one of the most significant documents that a local authority prepares," the briefing argues. "It therefore needs to be at the centre of an authority's activities."
The differences between old and new concepts are multi-faceted, contends Watson. "There are a lot more skills around things like project management, communication, partnership working, building relationships and all that sort of stuff," he explains. "This is stretching the skills set of the traditional planner."
Equally, other groups working in the new system need to be receptive to what planners are trying to do, Leask argues. "It is all very well skilling and enthusing planners spatially, but it is not something they can do on their own. You need to have someone who will meet them halfway in working towards delivering the vision and for them to recognise the potential of the LDF for delivering their services."
Watson notes that another component of spatial planning is that it does not recognise administrative boundaries. "It is not just about partnership working, it is about taking the opportunity to work with adjacent boroughs on cross-boundary issues," he maintains. "This provides the opportunity to save time and effort."
Providing evidence to underpin policies at an early stage is another key part of the updated system. "The requirement for a robust evidence base is a lot more important in the new system, particularly in relation to timing," insists Watson. "You need to have your evidence to help you generate and evaluate options."
Leask adds: "Under the old system you would get to deposit stage, which is now the draft submission stage. You would then produce a document and get a set of objections. You almost tailored your information to the specific objections. If someone said they did not like your housing projections you would alter them, whereas now it is all upfront.
"The evidence has to be there demonstrably all the way through to show how you have generated options and gone through the consultation stages. It is far more demanding of the quality and range of information required. That is why it is so important to have an understanding of the issues at an early stage."
Core strategies need to provide some detail on what level of development is required, Watson and Leask argue. "The regional spatial strategy will set the context of how much growth an area will have," says Leask. "In the core strategy you need to set the context for subsequent documents to be delivered and to be detailed enough to enable public involvement. It needs to go beyond motherhood and apple pie statements and give people a feel for this place-shaping."
Corporate leadership, working across council services and techniques for getting LDFs' message across have also been the subject of PAS best practice notes. The service is aware of the problems and challenges planners working in the system have faced. But it is increasingly optimistic that once the building blocks are in place for the revised way of working, a smoother future is in store for the system.
"We are in a difficult transition phase," Watson acknowledges. "But in five years' time, when people have got their core strategies under their belt and are in the process of ticking off new DPDs, they will get into the groove and start to see the value of the process. I am very positive about the system. I want planners to see the opportunities that it presents and to help them grasp those opportunities rather than seeing it as a difficult and negative change."
Leask maintains: "This process is a culture change. It is going through a teething process and it is almost a culture shock in some cases. It is a new way of working and it is going to take time because so many people need to realise what a leap forward it is."
WELSH PRACTITIONERS TAKE TO LOCAL DEVELOPMENT PLANS APPROACH despite ADMITTING TO SYSTEM FLAWS
In Wales, the planning reforms have taken the form of a slightly moderated version of the English system. In the main, practitioners view local development plans (LDPs) as a preferable approach, while still drawing attention to problems.
Conwy County Borough Council recently became the first authority in the principality to submit a preferred strategy (Planning, 13 October, p3).
Head of development plans Stan Yates says he was pleased to get the document published, but reports that the process was "very resource intensive" and required an increase in staffing numbers.
Jonathan Cawley, policy team leader at Denbighshire County Council, says stakeholders like the fact that they are dealing with a single plan and applaud the principle of a community involvement statement and an agreed timetable for producing the plan. "But we got bogged down in its preparation trying to tick all the boxes," he admits. "In hindsight we would simplify this process."
As in England, a great deal is expected from "frontloading" the process.
Authorities are being urged to carry out a wealth of public consultation at the start of the plan preparation timetable to enable them to come to judgements about various options, which can then be tested at the public examinations.
Cawley recognises that the process of consulting on options at the start is a good one and feels that it should make for better plans. "Frontloading is the biggest difference between the two processes," he says. "It is working quite well. We are not going out and defending particular sites. We are genuinely asking what people's views are and whether they are happy with various sites." Although the early part of the process is aimed at targeted consultation, public interest inevitably means that it becomes a full-blown consultation.
Handling telephone calls, arranging public meetings and holding discussions with town and community councils put tremendous pressure on staff resources, notes Cawley. "This slows down the work of preparing the first draft of the LDP, which can lead to slippage."
PILOT SCHEME BEING DEVELOPED TO HELP LOCAL PLANNING AUTHORITIES THROUGH THE UPDATED SYSTEM
The Planning Advisory Service is working with 20 authorities to draw up a pilot support project to helping them through the revised plan-making system. The process comprises a "diagnostic tool kit" to help PAS-commissioned consultants assess potential obstacles.
"The resulting report and recommendations will identify potential support needs to help local authorities bring forward development plan documents (DPDs)," explains programme manager Ed Watson. "PAS will then match the support needs to a package of help." He insists that the project is not about establishing a performance regime.
Instead, it is about generating improvement tools that allow other councils to learn from the pilot authorities, helping to build capacity and capability in the sector generally.
Consultants from Addison & Associates began a series of visits to selected local authorities last month to investigate what sort of help, if any, planners need in drawing up DPDs. They will use the diagnostic tool kit to assess difficulties faced by planners and probe how they can be overcome.
Addison & Associates director Lynda Addison is no stranger to unearthing problems in the way that planning departments operate and prescribing improvements. Her firm has been examining planning standards authorities since the late 1990s and has been carrying out evaluations of the planning delivery grant for the past three years.
Addison accepts that there are problems with local development frameworks (LDFs). "Local authorities are finding it difficult to understand the changes and to project manage the process effectively to ensure that they do the right things at the right time in the right way," she recognises.
"There is a tendency at the moment to be risk averse," she suggests.
"There is a fear of failure and people do not understand what 'spatial' means. The problem is transitional to some degree, but unfortunately it is taking time we have not got. The process needs to move faster. We cannot afford to fail."
The success of LDFs over the next few years will be crucial not just to the reformed system but to the whole profession, Addison believes.
"There is a real opportunity for planning to demonstrate what it can achieve, so it is essential that we exploit it and ensure that we deliver," she insists. "We might not get the chance again for a long time if we fail."