Don’t wait for the fine print
Article added 25th August 2011
Don’t wait for the fine print
Stephen Stoney, Technical Director, Wardell Armstrong LLP, looks at the implications of the Localism Bill
Is it a charter for nimbys, as some people think, or the positive empowerment of local communities? Will it hold back economic growth, or is it a genuine way of stimulating growth and jobs? Will it create local power struggles, or create the fundamental change to the delivery of development that the planning system needs?
Whatever your current view, one thing’s for sure. The coalition government’s Decentralisation and Localism Bill - released in December 2010 and expected to start being fleshed out this summer starting with a “guide to neighbourhood planning” - is very much here to stay. And much as many might like to wait for some of the finer detail to be clarified, there’s a strong argument for getting to grips with it now – and even turning it to advantage by taking the initiative early.
The intent of the government is very serious. In a way the bill is a more sophisticated version of Conservative policy that was prevalent in the early eighties – but it also appeals to many aspects of LibDem thinking. At its heart, it aims to reform the existing planning system to decentralise planning functions, and give greater powers to local communities and neighbourhoods to sanction development in their areas. It looks for local people and communities to play a more engaged, constructive and inventive role with incentives to get involved and accept change. It seeks to promote higher quality development focussed more on defined needs, with a presumption in favour of sustainability.
So what exactly does all that mean for developers, landowners and professional planners? Well, it’s true that it is hard at this stage to be exact. While the government has set out the broad principles in what is undoubtedly a long and complicated bill, the Department for Communities and Local Government are beginning to put the flesh on the policy bones. It’s also clear that it brings both opportunities and challenges to the established ways of doing things. And since there will be new approaches to be taken and new processes to follow, specific skills will need to be tapped into to ensure the best possible chance of securing planning approvals under the new regime.
So let’s take a quick look at some of the main aspects of the bill and their implications for the expertise that might be required.
Presumption in favour of sustainable development
According to the open source planning green paper, “the planning system can play a major role in decentralising power and strengthening society - bringing communities together as they formulate a shared vision of sustainable development.” This is likely to be particularly challenging for controversial proposals. However, sustainability appraisals and strategic environmental assessments are a well established way of promoting and supporting the sustainable design of development proposals. A presumption in favour of sustainable development provides the opportunity to maximise the environmental, social and economic aspects of proposals in accordance with community expectations and ensure acceptance both by local people and decision makers.
It also underlines the importance of environmental impact assessment (EIA) as an integral part of the design of any substantive and sensitive development - irrespective of whether a formal environmental statement is needed – so as to eliminate or reduce adverse environmental impacts (and their costs) by design where possible, and to provide a sound base of environmental information for the planning stage.
The Localism Bill 2010 sets out this objective: to “empower communities to do things their way by creating rights for people to get involved with ... the direct development of their communities.” But just how involved - and with what kind of stake? Referenda are proposed as a way of ensuring community buy-in. Some renewable energy proposals are already returning a percentage of the power output as a cash benefit to a community cooperative. Many new housing developments are looking for effective ways of providing for local needs. Extending this kind of thinking will call for truly effective community engagement, especially where the proposals are novel or contentious.
Again, however, there are well proven techniques to draw on such as well managed local events and exhibitions with opportunities for effective dialogue that build understanding and engagement. Planning performance agreements (PPAs) for complex developments are also a well established way of forging cooperative relationships between neighbourhood forums, local authorities and developers. And since environmental effects are almost always a primary concern for local communities, providing the right quality of environmental information from the earliest stages of the development will help to ensure that any debate will be carried out on a well informed basis.
NIMBYism and environmental impact
Some say the new Localism Bill will provide increased opportunities for so called NIMBYism. But is that really true? You could easily argue the opposite – that it’s an opportunity to deliver well thought out, constructed and planned development schemes with strong sustainability and environmental credentials ... so developers who are strong in this area (and who can apply the right skills) will have a distinct advantage.
According to the open source planning green paper, “the planning system must be sensitive to the impact of development on the ecosystem services that land provides – clean water and soil for food production, flood alleviation, energy production, carbon sequestration and a habitat for wildlife.”
It’s hard to argue with that. And what’s clear here again is that assessing and minimising environmental impacts of developments (through EIA for example) will become ever more critical.
Critical to success
So as the new landscape of decentralisation and localism emerges, what experience and expertise will developers in particular need to call on? The answer probably lies in the natural tension that exists between the desire for economic growth and the acceptability of change to local communities. At its simplest level the requirement is for modern sustainable development, and for convincing arguments in its favour.
The specific skills required will therefore be a natural extension of those that already allow developers to secure planning permission, increase their competitiveness and add value to their assets – while also carrying out the necessary consultation and involvement to satisfy community concerns and achieve an outcome where all parties can gain. Put another way, it’s the same as it’s always been - managing and balancing expectations – only more so. And of course it’s particularly in cases of environmental sensitivity or where anti-development sentiments are strong that these skills will be absolutely critical to success.
So drawing on the expertise and proven track record of a multi-disciplinary consultancy with strong environmental credentials’ such as Wardell Armstrong can pay real dividends. From robust environmental assessments to imaginative ideas for mitigation or betterment ... managing community consultation and negotiation ... and delivering schemes which guarantee high quality and sustainable development ... all of these demand a highly tailored and experienced approach that’s built around the unique demands of each individual project.
In most walks of life it generally pays to move quickly to keep ahead of the field. And it looks like this is just as true in the case of the Localism Bill. Rather than being cautious and waiting for every detail to be clarified, there’s a strong argument to say that we already know the key principles, we’ve seen the strong messages and themes, and now we just need to get on and make it work.
In the pursuit of sustainable economic growth things may well become more constrained and onerous as the Bill is published and statutory guidance notes begin to flow through. Early initiative and effort may well be rewarded through cleverly framing and incentivising development which people want and need, set against a natural reluctance to change. As more detail is developed, there may well be more ‘devil’ in it for professionals to deal with than we all think.