EiS Property (i.e. me) has had a busy few months. Much of my work over the past year has revolved around submitting and planning applications and hopeful securing some consents. With over 20 years experience in property I have been involved either directly or indirectly with the submission of hundreds of planning applications and I have been lucky, the majority have been approved. Yet whilst it is a technical and legislative process the final decision in many cases is down to the show of hands of the planning committee. That's when it is completely out your control and on occasions quite emotional.
Much is written about the whole planning process and for the majority who have to submit a planning application it is a daunting, costly, unpredictable and lengthy. All to often in the press, in specialist magazines or on programmes such as Grand Designs people vent their frustration with the uncertainty, delays and costs. Unfortunately much of what is required in submitting and processing an application does fall into the world of check lists and form filling.
In the past twelve months I have submitted a planning application for a large industrial scheme on what is essentially a brown field site. Of the 2.5ha a very small area is grassed and used for car parking however a full ecological survey was required. It was excepted that it was an area on almost nil ecological value but still a formal report was required simple because the application couldn't be registered without one. This resulted in a cost of close on £1000 and a four week delay. This and various other "technical" matters resulted in a 3 month delay in actually getting the application registered. However after 6 months it has been confirmed that the application has been approved under delegated powers.
Over the past few years community engagement has become of increasing importance and is now part of parcel of submitting an application. Simplistically the bigger the application the more community engagement you need to undertake. You do become hardened to dealing with aggrieved local residents and you have to remain detached and maintain a professional approach. So in dealing with the application you enter into dialogue with the planning officer, various statutory consultees and local residents but as the applicant you can't as a general rule speak to the decision makers, the planning committee members. Local residents though, who may well be strongly opposed to your scheme, have free access at any time. it is therefore difficult to put over your arguments on why the application should be approved. This to me doesn't seem to be balanced.
Assuming that your planning application is considered by a Planning Committee (many aren't and are determined under delegated powers) this is where all the hard work and effort conclude with a decision. To get to this this stage may have taken any months, sometimes years, it would have been costly taking into planning fees, consultants and advisor costs, taken many months sometimes years and tested your resolve and patience. It's decision time, the time when your dreams may get the green light, maybe not.
The week before the meeting the agenda and Committee Report will be available. You really do want to at this stage to have a recommendation for approval. In all the years I have been involved in planning I never had an application go to committee without a recommendation for approval. Your objective has to be to resolve all the issues before hand and get the planning officers support. If so you are going with the door half open.
It is very likely that earlier in the day you have observed the committee members on their site visit, I say observed as you as the applicant are not permitted to speak to them. You hope and would expect that the committee members have read the planning officers report and understand the scheme and if necessary have cleared up any queries before the meeting. You would also expect the Committee Chairman to conduct the meeting to ensure your application gets a fair hearing. When your application is discussed the planning officer will initially read a summary of the proposed scheme and then both the applicant and any others in support or who are opposed to the scheme are allowed to address the committee. The usual format is three minutes and is strictly adhered to. It is a part of the meeting when the aspirations, concerns and fears of people comes to the surface, it is when the emotion comes through. Applicants often get their advisor to speak on their behalf which I generally concur with. With a real attachment to the proposal it is all too easy to get off track and not keep to the key points and do so within the three minutes. I would always recommend you write your speak and read it from the script.
Some speakers are very good at conveying the key messages in a clear and concise manner and at the other end there are others who are so wound up that it turns into a ramble and rant which does nothing to help. I have experienced a few when an individual makes preposterous statements and claims about your scheme in an effort to sway the members view. I have people claim they will so physically and mentally affected that their lives will never the same again or that they will fall to some unknown of medical ailment.
Once the speeches are over the application is in the hands of the members to discuss. In some cases this part of the meeting can be very quick. One minute your scheme comes up on the agenda, the next you are elated that it is all over, your scheme has approval. I have also been to committees when the debate has gone on for a hour or two before a vote is taken. It is during this period that your resolve is really tested. As I said earlier you really do hope that all the members have read the reports, they understand the scheme, they are clear on national planning policy and of course the policies of the their own authority. There is nothing worse than your scheme hanging in the balance on some minor technical point which you thought was resolved months ago. It is even worse when you have a weak planning officer who doesn't take the opportunity to address the committee and provide the facts. If you haven't attended a planning meeting you will on occasions be amazed at the quality of the debate. Generally you will know your proposal backwards and it really can grate when a member is making an opinion or observation which is clearly wrong but could sway other members.
I have direct experience of one application recently which was being considered after two years of hard work but with a recommendation for approval. After the final objector had delivered his speech (in this case done very well with some good points) the Committee Chairman launched into a long dialogue on his thoughts on our scheme. It was appalling to hear someone, the Chairman, to address the members and get so much wrong. He clearly didn't understand the scheme, he certainly didn't understand the technical issues on which the application was being considered. To add to the confusion he got some of the key and fundamental points of the proposal completely wrong. He then went to say that the applicant was incompetent in it's management of the site the application related to and that we hadn't made any effort to engage with the Authority's planning officers. Two years, ten of thousands in costs, as an applicant you deserve more. Thankfully other members did see through the Chairmans failings and asked the planning officer to state the facts. After some time the application was considered and thankfully was approved.
In this blog I have attempted to highlight how the planning process works and the workings of the Committee. Like many others I really do have reservations on the whole planning system but at the same time I have sympathy for the planning authorities and their staff. At the end of the day they have a job to do and ensure that the law is being applied correctly and that applications are considered against the relevant policies. I also have great concerns on the ability of some council members but again like many others aren't willing to try and make a change and become elected myself. Politics isn't for me, there again it isn't for the majority and therefore the make up of elected members follows a similar theme and there is little we can do to change that unless there is a passion to get involved.
In a future blog I will give some thoughts on how I think the planning system could be improved.
Finally if your scheme was refused, my sympathies, you will have a lot of decisions to make.