Understanding the planning system (for those wanting to establish sustainable land-based enterprises)

This is a guide to understanding the planning system from Shared Assets, whose aim is to help the development of sustainable land-based social enterprises and ‘common good’ land use in the countryside. It’s particularly useful for those wanting to build a home on a smallholding or a sustainable land-based enterprise in the open countryside.

Understanding the planning system

This page attempts to demystify the planning process to make land-based social enterprises more confident in engaging with it. Land-based social enterprises have several obvious disadvantages when engaging with planning. For example, while a key part of a developer’s skill set is negotiating the planning system, a skilled land manager may have little knowledge in this area. Furthermore they may not have the resources to fight their case, be that their time or paying for expert advice. This disadvantage extends beyond individual cases to processes such as neighbourhood planning, where landworkers often lack the time and resources to engage.

The planning system can seem opaque and obstructive to outsiders but it’s important to get beyond this. The planning system plays a crucial and valuable role, and while reforms are needed, it’s crucial to work with it in the meantime. Planning policy is an extremely complex area, and we are not planners. Thus this is only designed to be a very simple introduction based on what we have found useful as we have learned more.

1. How planning works

This section briefly introduces some key areas of planning policy and practice. It is necessarily quite high level since there is a lot to cover – more resources are linked to for further information. As we will discuss later in this report, each of these areas represent potential targets for Shared Assets and other groups seeking to to make life easier for land-based social enterprises.

The application process

The first step is to submit an application to the Local Planning Authority (LPA). This is generally your local council.. After this has been checked for completeness, relevant stakeholders and experts are consulted to get their views. This may include publicising the development on site or in local newspapers.

Next there is a site visit from the planning case officer, who will gather key information needed to make a decision, and advise the applicant to make necessary amendments to their application. When a final version has been agreed, the planning case officer will make a recommendation to the LPA.

If the decision is not considered at all contentious it can be approved by the principal planning officer. If not, or if it is of strategic importance, it will go to the relevant planning committee. Generally the people making the decision at this stage will be elected officials – local councillors – rather than planning professionals. Decisions will be made at public committee meetings.

If the applicant is unhappy with the decision, they can appeal within 6 months of the decision. Appeals go to the Planning Inspectorate, a national body made up of professional planners.

National and devolved policy

Planning decisions are ultimately dependent on national policies. Whatever one thinks of the policy and the way it is applied, it is crucial to recognise that any arguments made in the planning system must draw on the priorities set out in planning documents like the ones below.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) : The NPPF sets out the government’s planning policy for England, consolidating most previous guidance. It is meant to provide a flexible framework within which local areas can make their own plans. It describes the purpose of the planning system as “to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development”, later defined as “living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly.” There is even directly supportive policy within it, for example promoting “mixed use developments… such as for wildlife, recreation… or food production,” or supporting “transition to a low carbon future”.

This sounds like it should support the models of land use we consider to be ‘common good’. However many people think that other considerations, such as promoting economic growth or building more housing, take precedence over environmental considerations in practice.

The Town and Country Planning Act : This legislation is important because it introduces ‘Use Classes’, which divide land into categories of what it can be used for. Each use class confers certain ‘permitted development rights’ that allows certain developments without full planning permission. Any change of use, or changes outside the permitted developments will require a full planning application. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own versions of this act.

Devolved policy : Each of the devolved administrations has different planning rules. Some of these differences provide means of helping common good land use. This briefing focuses mainly on English planning law, though much of what it says is relevant to the other administrations. If you are in a devolved administration it is crucial to look at the policy for each – see Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland . In England there is generally nothing that sits between the National Planning Policy Framework and local authority plans and policies.

While there is probably learning to be had from all the devolved assemblies, we have been particularly interested in planning policy in Wales. This is because policy on rural enterprise dwellings and One Planet Developments seem to make it easier to build dwellings for landworkers. As we discuss later in the report this could be of great benefit to land-based social enterprises.

Special planning policy : Certain statutorily designated areas are subject to special planning policies, which guide what developments are allowed within them. These include National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Green Belts.

How are local planning decisions made?

Local policy is important to understand as they set the framework for local development, and thus may provide support for applications. Accordingly, influencing local planning policy might be a key way to supporting land-based social enterprise. The plans below are collectively known as the ‘statutory development plan’ for each area, and form the basis of planning decisions.

Local plans : are designed to enable local areas to decide their own priorities. They must be consistent with key national planning policy, especially the NPPF. Not all areas have a local plan yet, but where they exist it is crucial to understand and work within them. They may include policy that is supportive of land-based social enterprise. If an LPA does not have a local plan, they must base their decisions on the NPPF.

Neighbourhood plans : only exist in England – they are designed to allow neighbourhood forums and parish councils to establish planning policy for their area. They were introduced as part of the Localism Act 2011 . Communities can play a large role in shaping neighbourhood plans, though they must be consistent with national and local planning policy. After they have been proposed, the plans must be approved in local referendums.

London also has its own plan, The London Plan , prepared by the Mayor of London.

Material considerations : Material considerations are things that must be taken into account when planning decisions are made. They are generally about the way in which the land is used and the impacts its use will have. This is obviously crucial as it defines the scope of positive results from the development that applications can highlight, or negative impacts where applications should show plans to minimise them. As we will discuss later, influencing what is considered a material consideration could be a key way to support common good land use. It is up to the decision maker in the LPA to decide how much weight to give to various material considerations in any given case. Their decision can only be based on material considerations.

Local Planning Authorities (LPAs): are the part of Local Authorities responsible for making planning decisions in that area. You can find your LPA here .

LPAs publish additional guidance (often called supplementary planning documents or SPDs) to inform planning applications and decisions. In some cases this might explicitly support land-based social enterprise, whilst in others it might provide guidance that can help applications. As discussed later, pushing for clearer and more supportive guidance might be a key strategy for promoting land-based social enterprise.

2 Reconciling with the current system

Some aspects of the planning system can seem particularly counter-intuitive and frustrating for land-based businesses. However there is often a good reason for them, and understanding and accepting them enables the applicants to adjust their case to fit them. The following are some key things applicants need to recognise when engaging with the planning system.

It is important to use ‘planning arguments’, not just what you find most convincing

In our interviews with planners a common theme was that land-based groups often fail to frame their arguments in a way that relates to planners and the planning system (as outlined above). Remember the planning system can only take “material considerations” into account. In general these will focus on the way in which the land is used. In particular it is crucial for groups to make their long-term plan clear, and highlight how it takes into account relevant policy and priorities. This is a key reason why professional planning guidance can be useful for new groups. It is not intuitive to frame arguments in planning terms and most will need support to do so.

Planning policy doesn’t care that your organisation is great

Many organisations feel there is a clear difference between applications from land-based social enterprises and those from for-private-profit applicants. This feels intuitively reasonable given that the goal of development for social enterprises is generally to increase the amount of social and environmental value they can create. However, this is not how the planning system currently works. Neither does it care about the ownership model of the land for the most part. For the planning system, land held in trust by a community organisation is no different from privately owned land. Applications and evidence must focus on the development itself rather than the applicant.

There are good reasons for planning to have strong barriers to development

Another common frustration is the feeling that planning processes are set up to frustrate innovative land management. People find it hard to understand why their projects are not supported, given their obvious social and environmental value. Whilst this frustration is understandable, it’s important to recognise that the planning system needs to prioritise and balance many competing demands.

The same processes that make development hard for certain social enterprises may also stop developments those social enterprises would oppose. For example, where restrictions on permitted developments rights have been relaxed, we have often seen people take advantage of them to the detriment of society. One recent example is around allowing change of use from office to residential. This was seen as a way of tackling the housing crisis, but actually served in some cases to remove necessary work spaces . It is also crucial to acknowledge that social enterprises can also cause damage to landscapes and environmental assets.

Thus while the planning system could benefit from reforms, businesses need to understand why certain constraints exist and adapt to work within them wherever possible. Simply protesting the current system, or getting frustrated and giving up, is not going to solve any problems.

3 Further guidance

We are not professional planners or experts in all the many intricacies of the planning system. Many organisations will need to access professional support at some point in the process. This links page contains sources of helpful guidance and support.

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