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Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners

March 6th, 2014 | Posted by Jonathan Clarke in Blog

Anyone with an interest in planning, development and the built environment will probably be aware that “The Planners” has returned to BBC2 for another run; albeit now rebranded as “Permission Impossible.” The first series made surprisingly good viewing, and recent episodes have proved similarly entertaining. By entertaining, I of course mean that it frequently makes you angry, amused, affronted, incredulous, surprised and disappointed. Or alternatively, just make you want to cry hot salty tears at mankind’s inability to find a more reasoned solution to a wall/railing dispute (more of that later).

That said, the programmes professional planners generally come out of this looking alright; particularly the indomitable head of Chester’s planning department, Fiona. I’ve also enjoyed watching Rob Webster, who I studied planning with at Birmingham, using his years of professional learning to get in the mind of a cat, when determining an animal hotel application.

Some sensible heads have pointed out that the programme misrepresents the system by ignoring the policy process which underpins decision making, but it’s fundamentally the personal perspectives that make it engaging. That said, the programme makers appear to have missed few opportunities to make their cast of ordinary folk look ridiculous, which I’m increasingly finding a bit unnecessary. Although in the case of the planning committees elected representatives, who time and again remind me why I don’t work in local authority, this is pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel.

More relevantly to followers of planning, I think a few interesting points have emerged from the various episodes.

For starters and in contrast to the programmes opening statement of NIMBY’s and impossible permissions, there is a sense that with sufficient persistence, in all but the most inappropriate examples, developments will eventually secure planning permission (although practice experience tells me that this process is well capable of ruining a good scheme too).

Another interesting issue emerged with the case of a disputed fence in Torfaen. For those not familiar, following the collapse of a wall outside a property, the housing association who owned it applied to put a new galvanised railing in as a replacement, much to the chagrin of a sizable number of neighbours (including the property’s occupiers). Despite a protracted dispute involving the district’s head of planning visiting the site and a full committee determination, the fence was unsurprisingly accepted. A reasonable decision to a ridiculous disagreement?

Looking at it another way, would it have cost the applicant much to try and take the neighbours views on board? I would imagine they spent more on consultant fees than they actually will on the railings. It seemed to me that the planning system is being used to resolve issues that would be better addressed by reasonable dialogue between parties and consideration by the applicant of their neighbours.

I had similar thoughts on the case of a special school which was facing local resistance to their plans to convert a number of residential properties into care facilities, having recently irked local residents by taking over the village pub and buying a local woodland for their exclusive use. It would be hard to think of a more deserving user than disabled children, but in spite of this I found myself feeling some sympathy for the villagers, whose community appeared to be being gradually eroded by these developments.

So too apparently did the local councillors, who subsequently turned the application down. Although, as the applicants planning consultant suggested, it seems almost inevitable that this will be overturned at appeal.

Whilst the programme only shows a snapshot of this process, I suspect that the school was not proving to be particularly considerate neighbour. In a more sane world, residents and applicants would come together to find mutually agreeable solutions, as opposed to the adversarial process of planning permissions that we see today, where residents voices are often only a small consideration, regardless of the strength of their argument.

This example also highlighted another personal bugbear, which I feel the planning system is particularly poor at addressing; cumulative impact. This is the idea that there are adverse impacts that are not present in individual cases, but only mount up with multiple developments. Given the case basis of planning, if a particular development has been allowed in the past, then there is a precedent to allow a similar proposal, which frequently precludes consideration of cumulative impact.

In the special school example, I felt there was a real danger that these incremental developments could undermine the residential character of the village. Another cumulative impact example, which is particularly relevant given recent news, is the issue of paving over of front gardens, increasing surface water run-off and contributing to flooding.

These examples illustrate the real value of Permission Impossible; that it brings these otherwise hidden issues into the mainstream media, in a way that has rarely been seen before. Despite some reservations about the presentation of participants, I will look forward to watching the remaining episodes.

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One Response

  • Trudy says:

    Having watched these programs I have learned 2 things :-
    most people who live in the countryside are NIMBYs
    Town planning committees are self important arrogant wasters


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