The Problem with Planning

18 Apr 2019

A lot has been written about the planning process in recent months. Ask any developer or planning consultant or architect and they will almost certainly agree that gaining consent to build has become a lengthy, expensive, over complex and frustrating process.

The number of different consultants needed to make an application can edge into the twenties; the volume of material generated is mindboggling. But very often the problem does not lie with making the application, it is the process of determining it that seems to be where it all unravels.

The City of Westminster and RBKC (Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea) are both Conservative-led authorities that ideologically should be pro development. In recent years under the watchful eye of John Walker, Westminster has been transformed. Consider Regent Street, Victoria, St James’s and Mayfair, all districts that, whether it is to your taste or not, have been upgraded and modernised. For this to happen the planning process needs to be nimble and efficient.  Planning officers need to be listened to and their professional advice respected by the members of the Planning Committee, many of whom are lay.

In RBKC, this has not been the case for some time.  Residents elect ward councillors who in turn lobby the planning committee to protect their residents’ interest.  Nimbyism has become a political force that outweighs the aspirations of developers. Cameron’s “Big Society” may have died a death on the grander stage but at the level of local planning and policy making, it seems to be entrenched and increasingly influential. 

We have reached a stage where applications that have been developed over lengthy periods are regularly dismissed by planning committees, despite the recommendations of officers. How has this happened ?

Since the demise of Cllr Davis, Westminster has seen a significant political shift. Like it or not, during the Robert Davis and John Walker era planning committees were efficient and informed, decisions were made in a balanced and educated way. Today the leader, Nikki Aiken who freely admits to know little about planning, has rewritten the rules, it seems that as a result developers are unlikely to be able to deliver schemes that will even break-even and consequently will not be built.

It is almost as if Westminster modelled their system on RBKC, allowing people to speak at the meetings, increasing the size of the committee and weakening the authority of the planning officers. 

To make things worse, London has a mayor who is very happy to overturn the decisions made by local authorities if he thinks he can squeeze more affordable housing units out of the application, even if it means making a tall building taller. This is such a sure fire way to get approval that applicants quite often tailor their proposals to Sadiq Kahn rather than to the local authority that is required to determine them in the local interest.

Local government is being undermined by politicians and policy makers. Unless the balance is redressed London will become an unattractive place to invest and develop in, the consequences whilst no doubt attractive to some, would be devastating to the local economy.