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THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE: How planning decisions are made

At times the planning system can feel like something of a lottery, with seemingly arbitrary decisions being made on each planning application. However, despite appearances, there is a strict process that councils should follow when applications are decided – this blog post reveals how it works.

Weighing and Balancing

At its core, planning is about comparing the benefits of a proposed development with the harm it would cause. Very rarely are developments entirely without harm, or entirely without benefit. New homes might be much needed, but what if it means a field is to be lost? A new factory might create vital jobs, but what about the traffic it will generate?

The role of the planner is to identify the benefits, identify harms and weigh them all up to arrive at a decision. The more important an impact, the more weight it is given in the overall planning balance.

But how do you even start deciding which impacts are more important than others?

Planning law is clear: all planning applications should be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Let’s explore what that means in more detail.

Start with the development plan

The starting point for deciding any planning application is the development plan. The development plan is the set of documents that outlines a council’s aspirations for development in its area over a particular period of time. It can include documents like a Local Plan, Core Strategy and Proposals Map.

In preparing its development plan, each council must clearly set out its development objectives and how they might best be delivered across the whole area. To do that, the potential benefits and harms of different approaches are considered, before the council’s preferred option is turned into the finally adopted plan.

This is the reason conformity with the development plan is given such importance in the planning system. After all the thought and effort that goes into preparing a development plan, it seems fairly obvious that an application which accords with it should be approved.

So, when a council is making a decision, the policies in the development plan are the first thing to be examined. In many cases there will be very specific policies relating to the site or the proposed new development. In those circumstances, how well a proposal meets the requirements of policy is given great weight.

The development plan can’t cover everything

Despite the best efforts of the council, it would be impossible for the development plan to take into account every conceivable situation. In some cases, the policies in the Plan might not deal with the type of development proposed. In planning-speak, that means they are “absent” or “silent.”

It is also possible that the policies could be out-of-date. Perhaps the time period the Plan was intended to cover has finished, or maybe circumstances have changed so much that the policies are no longer relevant. Policies are also considered out-of-date if they aren’t achieving what they intended to – for example, if the development plan isn’t delivering the number of new homes required.

Where policies are absent, silent or out-of-date, they should be given much less weight in the decision- making process – perhaps even none at all. That means that other factors, known as material considerations, become more important.

Material considerations

Material considerations are essentially all the factors that need to be taken into account beyond what the development plan says.  This might include site specific factors such as the loss of trees or traffic problems. It could also include more general matters such as other appeal decisions or relevant case law.

Sometimes material considerations simply help fill in the gaps where policy is missing. In some cases, though, it is possible for material considerations to be so important that they outweigh the development plan altogether.

Non-material considerations

Not everything is a material consideration – any factors which aren’t covered by the development plan, and which aren’t material considerations are known as “non-material considerations.” These shouldn’t be considered at all when a decision is being made.

Case law demonstrates that just because something might be regarded as desirable, it doesn’t automatically mean it is material consideration. It must have a planning purpose to be material. The impact on someone’s property value, for example, is not a material consideration. Other examples include the impact on views or, in most cases, the possibility that other sites could be developed.

Weight is for the decision maker

Once the appropriate policies in the development plan have been identified along with any relevant material considerations, it is time to reach a decision. That is done by deciding what weight should be afforded to each of those issues, and seeing where the overall balance lies.

The National Planning Policy Framework provides some guidance on what weight should be given to different factors. In some cases it even goes so far as to suggest the exact weight those factors are given in the decision making process. For example, it explains that any harm to the Green Belt should be given “substantial weight.”

However, the judgement of the decision maker is very important. It is a fundamental principle of the planning system that the weight to be afforded each issue is solely a matter for the decision maker. Their task is simply to consider all the relevant factors in reaching that decision.

That means it is perfectly possible for different people to reach different conclusions regarding the same development proposal. When a planning application is being prepared, it is therefore crucial that time is spent to make sure that the benefits of the proposal are maximised as much as they can be, while any harms are minimised as far as possible. The application should also clearly set out what the development plan says, what the material considerations are, and the weight that should be given to each.

This is one of the areas in which The Strategic Land Group is highly skilled. As well as promoting sites through the local plan process on behalf of land owners, we prepare and submit thorough and robust planning applications to maximise the chances of approval. All of this is done at our cost and risk. The land owner doesn’t pay anything – our return is simply a share in the value of the site once it is sold.

If you own or know of a site that could benefit from our bespoke approach, get in touch today.

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