A Matter of Detail

Less control over minor works at commercial and community facilities will cause confusion and undermine efforts to tackle climate change rather than cut red tape, Janet Askew predicts.

Government proposals for improving permitted development rights aim to take at least 25,000 small-scale commercial and non-residential planning applications out of the system each year.

The consultation document (Planning, 7 August, p3) follows on from recommendations in last year's Killian-Pretty review, which sought to "reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, making the process swifter and more effective". Earlier, the government had consulted on its householder consents review, which also aimed to reduce the number of time-consuming minor applications.

The revised householder regulations came into force last October. It may be too early to say whether they have been successful or otherwise. However, there is anecdotal evidence that the number of day-to-day enquiries about what needs planning permission has increased. So have applications for lawful development certificates and enforcement cases, due to the uncertainty surrounding the new regulations.

So have any lessons been learnt from the householder consents review in promulgating revised non-domestic permitted development rights for shops, offices, institutions, industry and warehousing? A detailed consideration of the proposals would suggest not. Poor-quality drafting and ambiguity of language have hindered the new part 1, schedule 2 of the General Permitted Development Order 1995 and there are signs of this in the non-domestic proposals too.

Users of the system have reiterated the need for clarity, especially in the definitions (Planning, 29 May, p23). Expressions such as "original building", "similar", "when viewed from outside", "visible from a highway" and "rear of a building" may confuse. As well as causing uncertainty, some require applicants to make value judgements, setting a dangerous precedent. Examples are the use of "similar materials" and whether a proposal would "affect a listed building". It appears that developers will be expected to decide for themselves whether their proposal meets these criteria.

The proposed regulations, on which consultation ends today, are littered with inconsistencies. They cite the impact on world heritage sites in some parts and not others. Some are questionable in principle. For example, extensions to use classes A1 to A5 are proposed without taking account of the different implications of extending a shop and a pub or restaurant. Allowing extensions covering up to 50 per cent of the ground at hospitals and educational institutions leaves one wondering how this will work on a major campus.

Other aspects of the proposals also give cause for concern. One is the plan to introduce another prior approval procedure for automatic teller machines and shopfront alterations, on top of the existing ones for agriculture and telecommunications. This would give planning authorities 28 days to respond. Deemed consent would be granted if there is no response or objection during that period. Oddly, developers could then submit a full application in the event of refusal.

This creates another set of procedures and more rules for planners and applicants. Given that a 56-day response time for telecommunications applications has been found to be inadequate, it is unlikely that a 28-day deadline will do anything more than place further pressure on planning teams. There is an assumption that prior approval procedures are easier for applicants, but it is well documented that they involve as much work as an application for full permission.

The prior approval regime, ostensibly designed to ease planning permission where there are no serious objections to development, has proved controversial in its use to date. In a recent study for the Welsh Assembly Government, researchers found that prior approval procedures are too complex and unpopular with all stakeholders involved in telecommunications applications.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the consultation is the proposal to allow air conditioning units to become permitted development in shops, institutions, offices and industrial buildings. The rationale is that buildings are likely to overheat because of an increased frequency of summer heatwaves, which at least recognises that climate change is an issue. But the solution illustrates an astonishing lack of joined-up policy-making.

To even suggest that one answer to climate change is to encourage higher electricity use makes a mockery of the government's intention to tackle the energy crisis. Worse, in conservation areas and world heritage sites, air conditioning will be allowed as long as units are not visible from a highway, creating potential for ugly and unnecessary metal boxes to crop up in some of our most important historic environments.

At best, the proposals have potential to cause yet more uncertainty for planners trying to implement them and for the public and developers trying to interpret them. Based on their forerunner in the householder sphere, they will not reduce application numbers. However, something even more fundamental may be construed from the government's approach.

The regime illustrates a real threat to the aesthetics of the built and natural environment from unacceptable development and a refusal by the government to accept that details do matter. It creates more complexity where clarity is desperately needed. Finally, it illustrates a colossal lack of joined-up thinking just when we are supposed to be creating a new system of managing rather than controlling development.

Improving Permitted Development is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc


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