Can proposed changes to public consultation reduce the number of planning applications which go to appeal?

By Colin Brown, Head of Planning & Development, Carter Jonas

There is a staggering increase in the number of refused planning applications being overturned at appeal: an average of 28%, according to PINS, and approaching 60% for those (typically larger) schemes which go to public inquiry. All too often, this is the result of pressure from local residents, leading to applications which were recommended for approval being rejected by planning committees. There is a certain irony that the very principle of democracy – in such cases, manifesting itself in the pressure on planning committee members to succumb to the demands of local residents – results in decisions being taken out of the control of the locally elected body and instead determined by the Planning Inspectorate.

In a recent example in Cambridge, a developer submitted a planning application for the comprehensive redevelopment of a large site, principally in office use, but also occupied by a popular local pub. Located on a major road which connects the city to Addenbrookes Hospital to the south, the site was located within area of major change in the City’s development plan, upon which local residents had been invited to comment. And yet the proposal attracted thousands of objections and consequently, despite a recommendation for approval, was refused by the planning committee.

Ultimately the applicant took the decision to appeal and, based on the fact that the proposal was supported by local and national planning policy, succeeded because of the substantial regeneration and employment benefits which attracted greater weight than the (relatively minor) single issue of the (possible) loss of a popular pub. This was in spite of allegations from objectors that to allow the appeal would have been tantamount to ‘trampling local democracy’.

This is one of the many instances in which those who shout the loudest have the power to reject a planning application. But is this how democracy should work?

There is undoubtedly a place, and indeed a need, for local democracy in planning, but all too often the principle is misplaced. In an ideal scenario, consultation has the potential to achieve consensus: local residents are engaged on the principle of development through the Local Plan process and sites are allocated accordingly. Developers then consult on their specific proposals, utilising the local knowledge and user experience of residents, always in the context of material planning considerations.

But unfortunately this scenario is rarely seen. Too few local residents engage at the strategic planning stages despite often admirable efforts of local authorities. When a proposal is consulted upon, many residents will respond on the basis that they object to the principle of development, despite the allocation having already been made through the Local Plan process and therefore the principle being firmly established. This leads to mistrust and antagonism, and I have no doubt that the increased use of social media to instigate campaigns is contributing to the increase in appeals.

But technological advances need not be considered a threat to planning. Proptech has an important role to play in planning and development, specifically in consultation.

The Government’s recently launched Proptech Engagement Fund commits £3.25 million to piloting new digital tools in LPAs. Intended to make planning more open, engaging and accessible, the pilots will use 3D interactive maps and virtual reality to help local people better envisage proposed new developments in their communities and encourage them get more involved. Modernising the planning system is intended to increase community participation in local decisions, specifically among underrepresented groups.

In time, improved consultation and engagement should lead to fewer cases of vociferous minorities exercising undue power over planning decisions – as was seen recently at Uttlesford District Council. Uttlesford had exceeded the 10% threshold for the proportion of decisions overturned, as a result of a group of vociferous individuals who stood for Council on an anti-development platform. In February the Council was put into ‘special measures’. Consequently planning applications of over 10 dwellings or one hectare may be submitted directly to the Planning Inspectorate, bypassing the LPA. Presumably this is not the situation that the minority of anti-development residents had aspired to, and neither does it meet the aspiration of good local democracy.

A future proliferation of such circumstances is a concern as there are several LPAs, in addition to Uttlesford, which have exceeded the 10% threshold.

Clearly this situation is not sustainable. Changes to the practice of local democracy are necessary to prevent such substantial numbers of planning applications being determined outside the democratic process. I hope that an investment in, along with a positive attitude towards and implementation of new methods of consultation, may mark something of a sea-change