15 Dec 2006

This one is going back a little more than five years or so but things haven’t changed that much in the meantime and I’m sure the same situation is being played out somewhere in the country as we speak.

Before I start, I have to offer some little explanation of how local authorities are organised. First of all you have different departments (car tax, roads, planning, etc) and then within these departments you have different sections so that within the planning department you might have ‘forward planning’, ‘backward planning’ (okay, I made that one up), ‘development control’, etc. Then, within each of these sections you’ll have ‘technical’ staff (planners and engineers) and administrators.

Despite the ‘Better Local Government’ initiative introduced at the start of the decade, the system is still pretty much made up of individuals doing they’re own thing, answerable to no one in particular. In some local authorities, a good section head might have the ability and inclination to muster the troops to act in a coordinated way in order to achieve an objective. But local authority figures with this kind of ability are few and, in fact, legendary.

So, to get back to the story… during the age of the tax designated development, a group of local businessmen made an application to a local council for a multi storey car park/holiday home/student housing type thing near the centre of one of our larger cities. It was a big site – the size of a large city block – and had come about from the demolition of some old lanes, coach houses, industrial buildings and the like. It’s perimeter was formed by the back walls of the existing buildings which faced onto some of the most important streets in the town.

Given its proximity to the centre, anybody looking at the site on a map might have said it presented a great opportunity for an ‘urban regeneration’ type project with new streets, perhaps a new square and a nice mix of uses. In fact, the area was large enough that if developed a particular way it would have created an entire new precinct which the town in question could have done with.

In any event, what the developers came up with was cheapest and simplest building you could imagine. A slab of concrete plonked down right where the more imaginative minded would have expected the new square. The structure was to be built tight to the back yard walls of the neighbouring structures which would mean that these walls would have to be built up with palisade fencing and rolls of barbed wire. In other words, an opportunity lost to create an attractive urban environment

The application was made to the planning authority.

Remember what I said about how the local authority is structured? Well, what happened was that one subsection of a subsection within the council happened to be quite creative. Seeing the possibilities the site presented to do something much nicer than that proposed, they decided to come up with an alternative plan of their own, one which would allow for a higher density development of retail and apartments (in other words offering a bonus to the developer, but crucially leaving out the car park cash cow) but which at the same time would open up the site to the public and stitch it into the fabric of the existing street pattern.

Some few hours were spent in working up the alterative proposal and it resulted in a thoughtful plan. 

At this point the head of the subsection of the subsection in question sought a meeting with the developers. Considering the bomb shell he was about to drop (i.e. asking the applicant to totally change his application and start from scratch with a completely different concept and without the car park), the sub section head was deliberately coy with the developer during the phone call as to what the agenda for the meeting was going to be.

A date was set for the meeting and the people within the relevant planning sub section huddled to discuss strategy – this, remember, wasn’t exactly the kind of news that the developer wanted to hear so diplomacy and tact would be necessary but, at the end of the day, the planning authority needed to have its way.

In the big conference room, the coffee fuelled local authority sub section people made their presentation on their alternative development to the developer, his architect and his solicitors. But, when the presentation was finished, the developer – surprisingly - agreed that the local authority’s plan had an awful lot going for it.

Did this mean, the local authority people wondered, that he was prepared to abandon his plans and go with their alterative?

Hardly likely, he responded. Didn’t they realise that he had already received planning permission for his multi storey car park (i.e. from the local authority, the representatives of which had called this ‘emergency’ meeting) and that the contractors were due to start on site?

No they hadn’t realised this at all. They hadn’t bothered to check the dates for when the decision was due, they hadn’t consulted with their colleagues in other parts of the planning department on the stunt they were about to pull and their colleagues certainly hadn’t consulted with them.

Such waste of time, such confusion, it really is no wonder that the public has a hard time giving any credence to the planning system.  

That's all for this week. Keep the coments coming. Send the address to friends. We'll have a very short edition next week. And then a little holiday. 

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