The Planning Game

In no way do I consider that getting planning permission is like entering a war zone. At no point can it ever be considered that! However that is what most applicants in 2021 conceive the planning process to be like.

Often when I speak to first time clients, new developers or even experienced developers they consider the planning system a battle. Planning Officers often forget their duty under the Planning Act to grant planning permissions whenever possible and instead seem intent on refusing anything! Worse still are the planning officers that see the applications as a hindrance to some other work that they have to do! A recent conversation I had with a Planning Officer in Kent started with the line “It would really help me if you just withdraw this application rather than me having to decide it”.

As a professional town planner and a member of the professional body (the Royal Town Planning Institute) this lack of drive in our planning departments of today is markedly different to the environment of Council’s when I started in 2002. The goal of the Council I joined was to negotiate the right development on the right site (and to hell with the statistic’s). There was a free duty planning system, a planning reception and free planning advice from the Council all driven towards getting development to work. As of 2021 however that Authority that gave me the start in this profession is a very different place. Gone are the ‘old’ ways of doing proper planning. These are replaced with a more authoritarian approach which changes with every new planning officer.

In 2012 the Government of the time attempted to sort the ‘forgetful’ nature of the Planning Officer by putting the duty to approve in the National Planning Policy Framework.

para 187 stated:

  1. Local planning authorities should look for solutions rather than problems, and decision-takers at every level should seek to approve applications for sustainable development where possible. Local planning authorities should work proactively with applicants to secure developments that improve the economic, social and environmental conditions of the area.

In 2019 the NPPF was revised and the message reinforced.

Para 2 remind’s us that:

  1. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. The National Planning Policy Framework must be taken into account in preparing the development plan, and is a material consideration in planning decisions. Planning policies and decisions must also reflect relevant international obligations and statutory requirements.

Para 7 gives us the duty to think about sustainability

  1. The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of
    sustainable development. At a very high level, the objective of sustainable
    development can be summarised as meeting the needs of the present without
    compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

And Para 11 states:

For decision-taking this means:

c) approving development proposals that accord with an up-to-date
development plan without delay; or

d) where there are no relevant development plan policies, or the
policies which are most important for determining the application are
out-of-date, granting permission unless:

i. the application of policies in this Framework that protect areas or
assets of particular importance provides a clear reason for
refusing the development proposed; or

ii. any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and
demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the
policies in this Framework taken as a whole.

So with a clear push towards granting development why is it that the LPA always seems so restrictive when it comes to new schemes, what are the outcomes they wish to see and how do they wish for those outcomes to be implemented?

When I consider the Planning System of today I call it ‘The Planning Game’. Its is a game of strategy, of moves and countermoves, of passing an application between different players, of taking the correct shot at the right time. Whichever way you see it the Planning System today is best conceived as a game between opponents seeking to get what they want on an application site.

If you conceive the system as a game then it makes alot of sense. Consider it as a game of chess, a nuanced sequence of moves and counter moves between applicants and planning authorities that ultimately leads to a form of development on a site or within the area of control of the Local Planning Authority. The opponent is not a Gary Kasparov however the opponent is, in theory at least, as well versed in Planning Law and Practice as the consultant and both are working towards a victory. There is no stalemate, a happy middle ground where neither wins or loses.

When setting up your side of the board it is important to understand your wants, needs and what the game needs to give you as a result. What would constitute victory to you? You also need to understand what you are passionate about.

Actress Alia Bhatt said:

“Whatever you do, do with determination. You have one life to live; do your work with passion and give your best. Whether you want to be a chef, doctor, actor, or a mother, be passionate to get the best result.”

If your not doing what your passionate about then the Planning Game will feel like Planning Hell!

Planning is ‘Plan Lead’ This means that the rules of the game are set nationally (within the National Planning Policy Framework and the National Planning Practice Guidance) and are then adapted by individual Local Authorities much like the local rules found on golf courses or the St Laurence Lime at Kent Country Cricket Ground in Canterbury (Hit the tree and score a 4). This means that whilst the rules are widely understood you need to look at the local policies (bylaws) established within any particular area to inform how you play the game. Knowing the national rules of the game is critical and understanding the local plan vital to understand the past of least resistance to victory.

At the same time it is also vital to understand your opponents tactics. Their strategy for winning the game. What efforts they will take in order to move towards, what they see as a, victory and how you can influence those conditions so your both playing for the same goal.

The game changes regularly as Government changes the rules or add’s new ones (think what the introduction to changes to the offside rule did to Association Football in 1987).

However you should always focus heavily on the subject of Strategy, how you set up the game in the most effective way with a view to winning the game well rather than coming out with a no-score-draw. A football manager never tell’s their players ‘ just go have a kick about and see what happens’ and neither should you when submitting an application. Long gone are the days of ‘lets pop an application in and see’ so you have to be more strategic in your approach to the Local Planning Authorities.

by Jon McDermott