Comment – The future for planning practice guidance

2 January 2013

Lord Taylor’s much anticipated report sets out the future for planning practice guidance. Following the lead set in the NPPF, he aims to distil the mountain of Government guidance into a suite of planning advice that adds real value. Lord Taylor was tasked with reviewing the raft of existing guidance, comprising over 200 documents and extending to 7,000 pages, including circulars, statements, guides and letters from the Chief Planner.

He has taken an aggressive and comprehensive approach in setting out recommendations for what guidance makes the cut and what should be sent to Room 101. He has also looked at the way in which guidance should be provided in the future, looking to the web as the portal. Lord Taylor has considered existing guidance and made recommendations on how the system of guidance should work in the future. The key conclusion is that the existing system is ‘no longer fit for purpose’. The report views negatively the way in which guidance has been managed in the past and the array of out dated documents. Some of documents originate from the 1960s and 1970s and have never been updated or replaced. Lord Taylor says that planning guidance should be essential and add real value. Recent guidance documents are clearer and more succinct showing that it is possible to present guidance that is accessible, useful and which can be kept relevant and up-to-date. Recommendations on how to extend this positive approach include:

  • Practice guidance should be a web based, live resource, hosted on a single site as a coherent up to date guidance suite
  • The web site should be centred on the NPPF and provide guidance that is not lengthy but prompts essential information and processes
  • There should be an annual review to ensure that guidance remains relevant, usable and up-to-date
  • As the website is live (rather than an individual document), material will need to be readily printable and date stamped
  • The web site should be accessible, free of charge and provide a bulletin/alert system for users to keep up to date with changes
  • Advice from the Planning Inspectorate should be included within a new single coherent guidance resource to ensure consistency
  • Other Government departments may publish guidance but it should only constitute formal Government Planning Practice Guidance once it is admitted to the website
  • There should be signposts to best practice by others but this should not endorse specific documents
  • DCLG should consider sponsoring or encouraging an award scheme as the best way Government can support the dissemination of up to date best practice.

The bonfire of existing guidance

One of the key tasks of the Taylor group was to identify what should happen to existing guidance. Recommendations have been made to categorise documents into three groups:

  • Cancellation - these documents should be cancelled as soon as practical. There are 103 documents in this group and include a number of letters to Chief Planning Officers and circulars dating back to 1963
  • Withdrawn - documents in this group deal with important subject areas that need to be covered in future guidance but in a different form. These documents should be withdrawn but relevant material incorporated into revised guidance. There are 28 documents in this group including Urban Design in the Planning System (2000) and Planning Obligations: Practice Guidance (2006)
  • Keep - documents here include material critical to the effective working of the planning system. Whilst these are to be kept, they should be reformed into the web-based resource. There are 106 documents in this group and include a number of PINS guidance notes.

The annexes to the report set out how each document should be dealt with. Whilst a significant number of documents are to be swept away, the majority of key commonly used documents have survived the cull, at least in the short term as they are amalgamated into the web based guidance.

New guidance

The Taylor group also identified the need for new guidance to support the Localism Act and NPPF, on key topics including:

  • The duty to co-operate
  • Local green space designation
  • Neighbourhood planning.

In bringing forward this new guidance and in producing a web based system, the focus will be on creating appropriate guidance around viability and updating guidance on Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMAA)/Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA). Updated guidance on flooding, climate change, renewable energy, EIA, biodiversity and sustainability appraisal should also be a priority. Prematurity and propriety should be addressed through updated Development Management General Principles guidance to update and provide advice on financial considerations in determining applications. This raft of new advice will build upon the NPPF and allow the cancellation of further documents, with a view to creating a single body of comprehensive, concise and up-to-date guidance

What happens next

Alongside the publication of the Taylor Report itself, the DCLG has published a consultation document to seek views on the content of the report. This asks for comments by 15 February 2013. Lord Taylor has challenged the Government to implement the majority of the work on the existing suite of guidance notes by July 2013, with the immediate cancellations and most urgent changes to other guidance being completed for the first anniversary of the publication of the NPPF (28 March 2013). In this respect, the next few months could see a substantive sweeping away of guidance and a radical overhaul of the way in which guidance is presented and accessed.

Our view

Whilst the attention will inevitably be on the headline of which documents are to be cancelled and those that are to be retained, the recommendations made by Lord Taylor run far deeper than simply a review of documentation. The report prompts Government to change the entire basis upon which guidance is provided, utilising new technology and web based access to achieve greater accessibility. This must be welcomed. Clearly the system has to change and a clear out of decades’ worth of seldom read documents is a good place to start. This is the easy bit. The challenge of reinterpreting many useful and relied upon documents should not be underestimated and there is a danger that with change comes uncertainty. The potential loss (or more likely redrafting) of key passages of guidance that we use on an almost daily basis will fill many with fear. The challenge is to get to grips quickly with the changing landscape of advice.