Now that the Elms Field planning application is in (F/2013/2284), I am getting a lot of questions about planning. So here is my brief – and very simplified – guide to planning in Wokingham Borough.
The basic principles
1 The whole system is based on the idea that development should be allowed. To stop it you have to show that it would cause harm if it went ahead.
2 Planning policy defines where “harm” would or would not be caused. If a planning application meets the requirements laid down in the policy, planning permission is very likely to be granted.
3 But, like the Pirate’s Code in Pirates of the Caribbean, planning policy is “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”. Some of it is subjective, some of it is objective. And you don’t always have to follow policy – as long as you show that you can show a good reason why you aren’t.
4 Failure to follow policy doesn’t always result in harm. Always remember, it is the HARM that matters, not the failure to follow the rules.
Anybody can submit a planning application for anything, even if they don’t own the affected land. The Council in its role as “Local Planning Authority” has to consider all the applications submitted to it.
Applications are assessed against policy. The process is quite legalistic and constrained. Only “material considerations” can be taken into account, i.e. only things within the remit of planning policy.
The decisions are almost always made by planning officers. Only the biggest and most contentious applications, or those made by councillors, council officers or the council itself, go to the Planning Committee for a decision.
If the Council approves a planning application, that is basically the end of the process.
If the Council refuses a planning application, the applicant can appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, a national organisation. The Council defends its decision to refuse the application. After considering the evidence submitted, the Inspector either allows or dismisses the appeal. Normally that is the end of the process for applications the council refused.
Just occasionally the Secretary of State at Communities and Local Government, currently Eric Pickles, has a hand in reviewing an application after an appeal, before the Planning Inspector issues their decision. The Secretary of State really is the end. (*joke alert*).
Planning has a language all of its own. Some documents appear to be written in English. But a lot of what appear to be ordinary English words have special meanings for planners. Words like “suitable” “available”, “sustainable” and “viable” are particularly tricky.
National policy is now all in one place: the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). 207 paragraphs plus some short appendices. You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/findNPPF
Reading the NPPF will give you a flavour of the basis of planning policy. It’s all about growth.
Under the national policy sits the local council’s policy. It takes national policy and fits it to the local area. Local policy cannot go against national policy.
The local planning overview for Wokingham is in the Core Strategy: http://tinyurl.com/findCoreStrat It lays out that most of the new housing coming to our Borough will be built in 4 Strategic Development Locations.
There are more specific policies in the Managing Development Delivery Development Plan Document (MDD). The MDD includes policies on things like what’s allowed in the countryside, which areas are suitable for businesses, parking, room sizes, open space, and lots more. You can read the MDD here: http://tinyurl.com/findMDD
Planning policy documents take years to write and agree. The Council has not yet approved the final version of the MDD. But it’s getting close.
And there are also other documents with more “rules”. These are called “Supplementary Planning Documents”.
The Borough Design Guide lays out the Council’s preferences for the design of new development: http://www.wokingham.gov.uk/planning/planningguidance/designspd/
There are “masterplans” for the 4 Strategic Development Locations, and for Wokingham Town Centre, and some guidance on infrastructure. You can find all those documents on the Wokingham Borough Council website at: http://www.wokingham.gov.uk/planning/development/locations/
They are either directly on that page, or accessible via the links on the left hand side.
As you will have worked out, there’s an awful lot of policy!
All this can be summed up in one sentence:
Planning applications will be approved UNLESS a) they don’t meet the requirements of national and local policy AND b) not meeting those requirements leads to some form of harm to someone.
I’m sure that’s all perfectly clear now! Happy to answer questions if you’ve got some. I will post more specifically about the Elms Field application shortly.