Improving the post-decision planning process to deliver better places in the West of England.

The scope of this project was to understand changes in design quality beyond the grant of either full or outline planning permission and to strengthen the role of local planning authorities in securing higher quality in the final build out of development schemes.


Executive summary

The planning process does not end at consent, yet there is very limited research in to post-consent processes and their impact on scheme delivery. The scope of this project was to understand changes in  design quality beyond the grant of either full or outline planning permission and to strengthen the role of local planning authorities in securing higher quality in the final build out of development schemes.

Project inputs

  • Budget: £48,000
  • Officer steering group (representative of 5 authorities, including DM, policy, urban design and enforcement)
  • Research team from UWE
  • Research participants
  • 25 in depth interviews
  • 4 case studies

Project outputs

  • Workshop with research team and five authorities (30 participants)
  • Research report
  • Recommendations

"The recommendations and depth of study has been great and goes beyond what I hoped might come out of this exercise."

- Workshop participant

Challenge and context

The failure to deliver consistently high-quality new development is an issue of national significance. The Housing Design Audit for England demonstrated that the design of new housing in the South West is overwhelmingly ‘poor’ or ‘mediocre’ and suggested that one in five housing developments nationally should have been refused planning permissions on design grounds (Place Alliance, 2020). The authorities in the West of England perceive that a contributing factor to this issue is a reduction in the quality of development between the grant of planning permission and delivery on the ground, such that the final built scheme can appear quite different to that contained within the original permission.

The National Planning Policy Framework recognises that the post-permission process has a role to play in supporting quality, and that local planning authorities should ensure the quality of approved development is not materially diminished between permission and completion, as a result of changes being made to the permitted scheme (NPPF, para 130). The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission also highlighted the need for planning authorities to improve the monitoring of wider outcomes of planning (eg wellbeing, health, natural recovery and beauty) and identified that post-decision processes can have a detrimental impact on development outcomes (Creating Space for Beauty, July 2019). However, there is limited guidance to demonstrate how this can be best achieved. 

This research project sought to shed light on the impact of the post consent processes on design quality including:

  • The discharge of planning conditions
  • Reserved matters
  • Non-material amendments (NMAs) and minor material amendments (MMAs)
  • Monitoring
  • Enforcement
  • Use of planning obligations / CIL 

The research does not to deny that pre-consent and the consent itself is still of pre-eminent importance, but seeks to offer deeper understanding in to what is an often overlooked part of the planning process and understand more about how planning authorities can strengthen their services to better support development quality post-consent.

Research approach

With funding from the LGA’s Housing Advisers Programme, the authorities commissioned a research team from the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments at the University of the West of England, Bristol to:

  1. undertake a systematic review to understand patterns or processes which lead to a decline in quality post-consent;
  2. provide an evidence base from which to strengthen the role of Unitary Authorities in ensuring quality development; and
  3. and draft a route-map for the West of England UAs to make improvements to the post-decision process and post-occupancy monitoring.

The findings from each stage of the research were compiled in a project report. The report is being finalised with publication anticipated in early 2021.

Key findings

The research was designed to ensure that practical learning points and recommendations could be shared with the West of England authorities, to support the delivery of service improvement.

Although not considered a fundamental determinant of overall design outcomes, the way in which post-consent planning processes unfold can allow for a significant decline in the overall quality of a delivered scheme.

Interview findings - local authority practitioner views on post consent
  • The policy bar on design quality is considered high, both nationally and locally, but is not always easy to achieve in decision making. A scheme’s design might be perceived ‘good enough’ or even just ‘not harmful’ when balanced against other potential benefits of a development, particularly its contribution to housing supply and employment.
  • Despite some perceived improvements in the design quality of more recent schemes, the overall narrative was of a ‘mixed picture’ with several 'disappointing’ outcomes.
  • Securing planning permission through an outline planning application with reserved matters is considered problematic, and the majority of interviewees perceived full applications to afford much greater control over design quality.
  • Discharge of conditions can be very time consuming, and if not properly worded or resourced, they do not provide the quality safeguard that is intended by their use.
  • Non-material and minor-material amendments are being increasingly used by developers to ‘chip’ away at the original design intent of schemes. Managing the cumulative impact of multiple NMA’s can be challenging.
  • Local authorities have scant resource to monitor individual consents, despite the strong appetite and perceived utility of doing so as a way of ensuring quality at delivery.
  • Enforcement action is largely complaint driven, and judged by ‘harm’ rather than the enhancement and aspiration of design policy. On large sites the absence of on-site neighbours means there are less complaints and there is a perception that major housebuilders can ‘routinely’ leave out key elements in anticipation that these will go un-noticed.
  • Neither CIL nor planning obligations were seen as significant mechanisms for ensuring high quality design post-consent. However, it was recognised that there was opportunity through the new CIL requirement on commencement notification to provide and resource more effective monitoring, and that planning obligations such as design certifier / retention of architect clauses could be explored. 
Case study findings
  • To a greater or lesser degree, all four case studies have seen post-consent design changes, but not all changes were planned, with some occurring as a result of construction error, including failure to build-out to the correct plans.
  • Developer’s saw the need for change post-consent as an inevitable part of the development process suggesting that refinement of design would always occur in the transition towards construction. This was true for all scales of development.
  • The lack of a five-year housing land supply was perceived as rendering the local authorities less able to negotiate on important aspects of design. The preparedness of the local authorities to accept or reject change varied across the case studies, with some design changes accepted as relatively inconsequential even where they resulted in a significant departure from the original design intent.
  • All case officers reported a lack of local authority resource for the effective management of change post-consent, the outcome of which was – in some cases – perceived as a more pragmatic rather than optimal approach to handling design amendments.
  • All case studies highlighted the challenge of governing good design, where some design elements are perceived as subjective. Reflective of this was that stakeholders had very different views on the impact of design changes. Residents, for example, tend not to have viewed changes as having tangible negative impacts. Professional stakeholders, on the other hand, particularly those involved earlier on in the design process, tended to view changes more negatively, lamenting shifts from the original design intent.
  • The use of design codes can assist in the effective management of design post-consent, but their results are highly context dependent. In one case, flexible design codes allowed learning from one phase to enable design improvements in another, whereas in another, design quality was not seen as high in the second phase, despite the use of codes.
  • There was a consistent view across the case studies that continuity – both from the local authority and developer teams pre and post consent – was an important way of handling change. However, whilst continuity of personnel was seen as ideal, other ways of supporting continuity from documentation management to senior oversight were highlighted, accepting the challenges of maintaining key personnel over long periods.
  • Residents are the ‘eyes and ears’, and processes to enable their effective engagement post-consent – particular for schemes involving multiple phases – can support better project implementation.
  • The importance of trustand the need for improved trust between key players to support developments through post consent - was common to all the case studies, but no easy answers were given as to the best way of engendering greater trust, although the engagement of a compliance officer in one case study clearly had a significant positive effect.

The difference we made

This project is supporting the West of England authorities’ aspiration to achieve a culture of design excellence that will facilitate a step change in the quality of new development coming forward. The project helps us work towards this through the outcomes below.   

Project outcomes

Stronger understanding of the ‘weak’ points in the post-consent process that result in diluted quality of design in new housing developments.

Better understanding across the authorities of the importance and role of specific processes in planning in ensuring quality development.

Enhance the role of the UAs in ensuring high quality development through post-consent delivery.

Explore opportunity for more consistent practice across the UAs.

How achieved (project outputs)

Understanding of the impact of post-consent processes and their contribution (both individually and cumulatively) on the overall quality of the delivered scheme.

 

Dissemination of learning has been integrated in to the project delivery, through regular steering group meetings and a workshop to discuss emerging findings.

The final project report will provide a springboard for further dissemination within and beyond the West of England authorities.

The project’s final report includes recommendations under five priority headings. This will provide a template for authorities to consider further potential actions that are most relevant to their local context, and highlight opportunities for creating more consistency across the region’s authorities.

Who involved

Officers from across a range of disciplines including planning policy, development management, planning enforcement, transport planning, urban design, conservation, and ecology.

Case studies included interviews with developers and case officers.

Officers from across a range of disciplines including planning policy, development management, planning enforcement, transport planning, urban design.

Officers involved in service delivery to consider potential for implementation which responds to local context and resource constraints.

The research sets out a series of recommendations and their rationale for supporting design quality post-consent - intended to support the local authorities in considering how to improve post-consent practice.

These are grouped in five areas for action set out in the diagram below. The recommendations under each of these themes are inter-related, rather than sequential. Accordingly, whilst the recommendations are intended to be mutually reinforcing, taking action in one area is not dependent on another.

Diagram 1

See diagram 1 description

Diagram 1 description

Five inter-connected areas for action turning in clockwise fashion, described in order as below:

Improve knowledge > re-frame post content > Agree principles to support development post-consent > Make specific improvements to post-consent processes > Widen the conversation

What's next?

The next steps are to publish the final research report and support the dissemination of learning. Potential activities to support this include:

  • The development of a CPD tool based on the findings and recommendations.
  • A workshop with each of the four authorities to present the findings and facilitate a discussion of the recommendations and support prioritisation and agreement of an action plan.
  • Explore opportunity for a national workshop (potentially with LGA) to present the findings and explore commonality of experience across a wider geographical area. 
Lessons learned

There have been two key challenges the project. One was responding to COVID-19 and adapting the research approach to enable delivery through the national lockdown.

The second was responding to the publication of the Planning White Paper in August 2020. Although significant uncertainty remains about the final nature of the reforms, they do set an important direction of travel. Of particular relevance are the White Paper proposals for automatic grant of outline planning permission in growth areas, which would mark a substantial shift in the point at which decisions occur in the planning process, and the questions the White Paper poses about design and the aesthetic quality of development and the reforms needed to improve this. The project responded by highlighting in the recommendations:

  • those findings that directly reflect the direction of travel proposed in the White paper;
  • those findings that would need further reflection in a re-configured system; and
  • those findings that are relevant, whatever form the planning system takes.

Project partners: West of England Combined Authority, UWE Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset Council, Bristol City Council, North Somerset Council. South Gloucestershire Council

Case study author: Celia Davis, Planning & Housing Officer, WECA, Celia.Davis@WestOfEngland-CA.gov.uk