Planning applications: the importance of weighing up the benefits

The Planning Inspectorate last week approved plans for 180 homes within Cheshire West and Chester despite the scheme being contrary to the development plan of the authority, which also has a five-year supply of housing. In a nutshell, the inspector believed the the benefits outweighed potential harm.

We see many cases across the country where the interpretation of planning policy is alarmingly subjective: there can be severe disagreements over ‘onerous’ conditions that can jeopardise a development which would deliver significant benefits. A lack of trust between officers and developers has been noted as an issue, which can create confrontations that benefit nobody.

Thorough consultation and early engagement with stakeholders, however, can ensure that the benefits of a scheme frame the discussion from the outset. We are aware of cases where councillors have been completely unaware of plans until they saw the officer’s report a week before, and were left with no choice but to follow the recommendation for refusal, despite being sure that the scheme would benefit the area.

Councillors are well within their rights to speak to both applicants and planning officers during the planning process, and are perhaps more sensitive to the overall merits of a scheme. We’ve recently had a situation where an application was set to be recommended for refusal, but the local ward member was able to speak to the planning officer and gain a time extension, despite the request being initially rejected, and it was subsequently recommended for approval just a few months later. This was possible because the councillors had been aware of the development and its benefits from the outset, and the lines of communication were already open.

It’s easy to see the role of councillors in the planning process as only campaigning against proposals. In many cases, this is because they first hear about schemes when people object, and the negative aspects can spiral and shape perceptions of the plans from when they first become public. Early engagement with the local community can ensure that the benefits and need for a development are highlighted to them. For particularly controversial plans, the difference between a flat, ‘No!’, and a: ‘I understand why this is needed, but I still don’t agree with it’, cannot be overstated. Whether it is the view of residents or councillors, it’s an opening for dialogue which bodes well for all parties involved throughout the process.

As the developer is the one proposing a scheme, it is within their hands to get their messages across early on. This can ensure the benefits of a development are heard by both councillors and residents, and can have a huge impact on the overall success of a scheme. As the latest appeal for Cheshire West and Chester shows, the overall benefits can be the most important factor.

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