GASP Groups Against Stadium Proposals fights destruction of Historical Air Park

Explanation of the planning process

16 May 2011

It has been suggested that it would be useful to summarise how any stadium planning application would be dealt with. This article firstly explains how planning applications generally are assessed and decided, and then describes the mechanics of the process, with particular reference to the stadium situation.

In the UK we have what is described as a 'plan-led system'. This means that any planning application is not decided on a whim or an opinion poll, but assessed against a suite of pre-written policies. There are local and national policies which should be consistent with each other - where they are in conflict, national ones take precedence.

Complexity and a certain amount of subjectivity arise because :

  • policies are written in a flexible way to allow for the inevitable balance of costs and benefits that most proposed developments involve;
  • policies are frequently reviewed and revised, and the actual process of revision can take a very long time. During this period, although the finalised 'adopted' policies carry most weight, the new 'emerging' policies and general direction of travel that they signal, gradually carry increasing weight.

The most significant policy documents locally are:

  • the Core Strategy setting out the overarching strategic policies and key land-use allocations, and replacing some of the content of the Local Plan;
  • the emerging Delivery and Site Allocations Document which has gone through several stages of consultation over several years and has still not been finalised; and
  • the sections of the old Local Plan which have not yet been super ceded by the new documents.

National policies are mainly set out in Planning Policy Statements and their predecessors Planning Policy Guidance; again we are in a bit of a state of flux because the new government has signalled its intention to replace the whole set of PPSs / PPGs with a "more streamlined, less prescriptive" set of principles, and have started to hint at the proposed content.

The only significant reference to the stadium in the aforementioned local policy documents is in the Core Strategy which refers to "resolving issues relating to Adams Park"; no sites have been suggested in the Core Strategy or the emerging Site Allocations Document.

Green Belt is, of course, a key policy consideration in our case; the rules are set out in the long-standing national PPG2, with an explanation of the Airpark being identified as a 'Major Developed Site in the Green Belt' included there and in Local Plan Policies GB9 and GB10. Indications from Government so far are that Green Belt is one of the few areas of planning policy that they intend to keep relatively unchanged.

The above sets out how the decision-maker, whoever that is, will assess any application. I turn now to the actual application process.

Ahead of an application being formally submitted, it is an expectation (although not an absolute requirement) for the applicant to engage in some form of 'pre-application consultation'. [This is not what we have had so far - that was intended as a consultation on the principle, and choice ofsite.]

This pre-application consultation is about the specifics of the application (layout, design, etc) with the objective of improving its quality and acceptability, not about the principle itself. Current indications are that pre-application consultation may begin later this year with any application following in early 2012.

Once an application has been submitted, it will be handled by a Planning Officer (an employee of WDC). Views will be actively sought from other statutory agencies such as Bucks County Council Transport, Environment Agency etc., and other WDC departments. Anyone else including members of the public, councillors, and other interested parties may submit comments in writing or on-line. Normally, in order to be guaranteed to be taken into account, comments have to be submitted within 4 weeks of the date that the required advertisement / publicity of the application has been completed.

For major applications of this sort the Officer will notionally work towards making a decision within 13 weeks. He / she could technically make the decision themselves under delegated powers, and if the decision is to refuse this is not inconceivable in this case. But any District Councillor has the power to request that an application is decided instead by the Planning Committee, a sub-set of councillors who receive specific training. If this occurs, the application will be discussed and decided in a meeting open to the public, with a (very limited) opportunity for public speaking by those who submitted objections, and by affected ward councillors and parish councils.

Another possibility is that the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government (currently Eric Pickles) will exercise his power to 'call in' the application, and effectively make the decision himself with the aid of a centrally-appointed independent Planning Inspector. Although this power extends to all applications, normally an application will only be called-in if the SoS thinks that there are planning issues of more than local importance. Examples of these are :

  • development that may conflict with national planning policy on important matters;
  • development that could have wide effects beyond its immediate locality;
  • development that raises significant architectural and urban design issues;
  • development where the interests of national security are involved, or the interest of foreign Governments;
  • development where there is significant regional or national controversy.

The most likely trigger in our case would seem to be the potential conflict with national Green Belt policy. A number of comparable proposals have been called in, but we cannot assume precedent will be followed, particularly given the new government’s professed enthusiasm for local decision-making.

Such a call-in can only occur once a planning application is made and prior to any decision by the local authority. DCLG will automatically have been made aware of the application if the local authority are contemplating giving permission because they are required to be notified of any application for development on the Green Belt; but the SoS can also be encouraged to call in an application by letters setting out why it is a matter that should concern him.

If there is a call-in the most likely scenario is that the application would be considered at a public enquiry before a Planning Inspector, where there is ample opportunity for third parties to have a say. Although the main players will employ barristers, it is perfectly possible to participate effectively without one, since the Inspector will make due allowance. After hearing the arguments the Inspector will make his / her recommendation, but the SoS has the final say.

One other possible course is that the application is refused by the local authority, but the applicant exercises the right of appeal, in which case the decision will again be made by an independent Inspector following a public enquiry.

Any call-in and public enquiry process will prolong the decision-making period at least for a few months, even in the absence of any complications or legal challenges.

The same process applies regardless of who the applicant is; so it is possible for a local authority to apply for planning permission to itself, either on its own or jointly with another party. Extra safeguards apply, for example, there has to be an absolute and clear separation between committee members and Officers deciding the application, and those with responsibility for any aspect of managing the land; and any permission would only be valid for the local authority and any joint applicant (i.e. permission cannot later be transferred to someone else).

Mike Chadwick of The Chiltern Society

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GASP's Response

GASP response to stadium proposal decision 19 July 2011Read More>>

link to blog
Thanks to Paul Baker, Adrian Metcalf

GASP is a coalition of parish councils, residents' associations, sports clubs and conservation bodies
from around the Wycombe and Marlow districts who believe the current stadium proposals are flawed