Architects attending the RIBA’s recent Guerrilla Tactics conference were treated to some insider tips on how the machinery of planning works in the real world, and how they can get the best out of it.
One area of planning that regularly mystifies architects is the pre-planning process, which was explored by architect Rachel Hearn, Public Partnership’s placement in Havering, where she has worked on everything from estate renewal to a new masterplan for Romford.
Pooja Agrawal, Co-founder of Public Practice, introduces ‘Navigating the Planning System’ RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics 2018 © Karla Gowlett
Hearn urged architects to engage early wherever possible, with the importance of early engagement rising with the complexity of a scheme. Deciding not to submit a pre-app and then trying to negotiate during the submission stage is not regarded as helpful by under-resourced planning departments.
She also suggested that it can be a good idea to bring the client along to a pre-app meeting; this makes the meeting more productive and less likely to result in a bland summary letter that commits to nothing. It is also an opportunity to build a relationship with the case officer. ‘Explain your design constraints and explain your solutions to them. You are trying to get the planning officer to share your vision for the site,’ explained Hearn.
Her guiding advice is to make every effort to be constructive rather than defensive, and to listen to how specific policies might be applied to your site. You should try to reach agreement on what the principles of community engagement will be and what the design principles are: come away from the meeting with something useful.
Overcome Summary Letters
If a non-constructive meeting leaves them with no other option, planners will fall back on the summary letter that simply regurgitates planning policies, warns Hearn.
Currently placed in the GLA’s Royal Docks team as a design adviser, Jennifer Gutteridge took architects through the submission to determination period. She began by advising them to regard negotiation as a positive process. It is an opportunity to find out as much as you can about what planners are thinking, what concerns they may have and how you can be creative about addressing their concerns. It is also an opportunity to get to know your case officer, which can pay dividends.
Use the Windows
‘Make the most of any windows that open up for negotiations, such as amendments, and use these to build up trust,’ she counsels. ‘And if a planner phones you up, grab that opportunity to show that you are collaborative and want to make the application work.’
Rediscover the ‘Phone
Gutteridge suggests architects should rediscover the phone, as it remains a useful tool for informal conversations. Planners, conservation officers and urban design officers are more likely to be candid in conversation but will be far more guarded in any written communications, including emails.
Amendments within the determination process tend to be highly discretionary. Planners will not be happy to receive a series of amendments (unless they are very small), as that is rarely the sign of a good scheme. Gutteridge pointed out that planners are unlikely to spend time asking for amendments if they are likely to oppose an application.
This means that amendment requests might indicate that an application is seen as borderline. What many architects may not appreciate is that planners will generally want borderline applications to succeed: this removes the risk of an application being left open to appeal and an unpredictable judgement from a planning inspector.
Lucia Cerrada Morato, who is working on best practice guidance for high density development at Tower Hamlets, provided an explanation of planning conditions. She pointed out one aspect of them that may be of encouragement to architects going through the planning process. Some local authorities may choose to use Section 106 agreements, once planning permission has been granted, to require retention of the architect, or a retained role as design certifier.
Like all development operation, we believe that planning is a collaborative process which should aim to produce a win-win result. The professional knowledge and advice of planners, architects, technicians, manufacturers, and builders combined with inputs from all other stakeholders is necessary to produce the best possible outcome. However, this process cannot and should not be rushed and landowners, investors, local and national governmental authorities should make provision for this in their strategic objectives.