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Q&A: Planning, plan-making and resources in Wales

Planning / iStock_000035898050

Following the publication of The Future Generations Report 2020 by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, The Planner spoke to Helen Ashby-Ridgway and Owain Nedin at planning consultancy Lichfields about their thoughts on the report and planning in Wales.

1. How do you think the Welsh Government can better resource the planning system? What impact is a lack of resources having on planning in Wales?

Resourcing local planning authorities (LPA) departments is one of planning’s biggest challenges and not just in Wales. In Lichfields’ experience, on the whole, and taking the application process as an example of a planning function, the LPAs in Wales do very well to deal with the workload they have given resources available to them. However, if we are to drive development forward and increase the delivery of housing, employment opportunities and infrastructure there will be more pressures on the LPAs to deal with an increased caseload. Given the current economic climate it’s unlikely additional funding can be made available to simply increase LPA staff levels. However, under-resourced planning functions can have significant effects for the development industry, where delays have real-life financial implications. Examples of how the planning system might be better funded, or helped to work more effectively might include:

  • Ring-fencing application fees for retention by planning departments.
  • Ring-fencing money for statutory process, ensuring that money is delivered to statutory consultees so they can do their jobs effectively and efficiently.
  • Upskilling and retention of skills of planning officers, members and statutory consultees.
  • More flexibility in planning, allowing a more simplified approach to smaller, less complex applications, freeing officer time to deal with the larger, more time-consuming schemes (for example, increased permitted development rights/prior approval).

2. How has the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 (act), together with Planning Policy Wales 10 (PPW10), had an impact on planning in Wales?

Sustainable development already underpinned the planning system and so, unlike other aspects of local government functions, there was less significant change for planning when the act was introduced.

PPW10 is completely different in its framework to earlier editions of PPW, but the underpinning principles and policies remain largely similar, albeit that the document is, perhaps, less accessible as earlier editions.

3. The report suggests the Welsh Government should invest significantly in implementing placemaking and PPW10 to ensure placemaking is delivered. Where is the money most needed to achieve this? Aside from money, what will help to implement placemaking?

The development plans are vital to achieving placemaking. Ensuring that there are up-to-date development plans in place should be a priority for local authorities and the Welsh Government. Some LPAs are less advanced with their plan-making than others and this has consequences for the delivery of placemaking. Development plans are not the only part of the jigsaw, particularly where local planning authorities do not have up-to-date plans. Positively determining planning applications that propose sustainable development is also vital to achieving the wellbeing goals of the act. That focus has particular resonance when considering large-scale development and regeneration, whether this be brownfield or greenfield, that more often than not have the ability to contribute meaningfully to the placemaking agenda within their redline boundary. Larger sites have opportunity to better plan the development area, more flexibility to introduce placemaking and the opportunity for them to deliver this should be a material factor in considering allocations at local plan stage or determination at application stage.  

The Welsh Government approach to delivery of major development is clear, now, that it should be through the development plan. This significantly reduces the opportunity for any development that is promoted outside of the framework of a plan to come forward. Having taken this approach, it is crucial that development plans are prepared and reviewed quickly and effectively. In this sense the Welsh Government must ensure that LPA plan-making teams are well and appropriately resourced. Failure to do so will prevent planned development coming forward and with it opportunities to deliver the place-making agenda will be impacted.

It is also crucial to keep in mind that in many parts of Wales one of the biggest hurdles to development of any kind is viability and deliverability. The principles of placemaking are to be supported, encouraged and are positive goals for development, however, it is important to ensure that sites are deliverable and viable, otherwise the delivery of the placemaking objectives will be a theoretical paper exercise only.  

4. Developments that are not fully aligned with PPW10 and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 should be refused, the report recommends. How can developers ensure that plans contribute to delivering sustainable development, and improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of Wales, particularly now given the coronavirus?

It’s not as straightforward as this. Often, in the course of considering planning applications, there are competing planning policy requirements – when coupled with financial viability, land ownership, physical constraints and many other factors it is quite often the case that development cannot fully accord with every policy requirement. It’s the role of planners to apply a balance when policy and other factors do not perfectly align to ensure that development delivers what is reasonable and that the positives of a proposal outweigh any harm or divergence from policy and objectives. As we enter a period of increased uncertainty, and where economic constraints on development will increase further, plan-makers and decision-takers will need, more than ever, to be pragmatic in their functions to ensure that social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing in Wales is balanced and delivered.

Helen Ashby-Ridgway and Owain Nedin, associate directors at Lichfields’ Cardiff office. 

Read more: 

Report: Welsh planning needs to be better resourced to deliver wellbeing outcomes

Image credit | iStock


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