Looking back on 2016 it was yet another year of conflict and flux in the world of planning.
As the Neighbourhood Planning Bill completes its passage through the House of Commons and heads to the Lords this year one element of it has come to the fore for environmental campaigners, that of pre-commencement conditions. So what are pre-commencement conditions?
All planning permissions are granted subject to conditions. No development is ever permitted without any conditions even if these are just stating that the development must be in accordance with the plans and that development must have started by a certain date.
Pre-commencement conditions are conditions that must be fulfilled prior to the start of development (i.e. before the ground is broken on a development). Often these relate to very straight forward matters such as providing the Local Planning Authority (LPA) with samples of the bricks or roof tiles to be used. But critically they are often related to ecological matters. For example schemes are often permitted subject to the submission of a landscaping scheme setting out details of tree species and planting locations. The Trust would always argue that these details should be fundamental to the decision making process, after all the quality of the landscaping makes a huge impact on everything from quality of place to biodiversity and climate resilience.
Pre-commencement conditions are also often used to secure ecological surveys and mitigation schemes (i.e. the protection of trees during development). The applicant has to pay a fee to the LPA to discharge the condition once the authority is satisfied that sufficient appropriate information has been received.
Pre-commencement conditions are often used as a tool to enable developments to happen sooner rather than later by essentially buying developer’s extra time. Whereas in an ideal world most of these issues should be dealt with up front, early on in the process to ensure that development proceeds from a position of fully understanding the ecological baseline to ensure the best outcome possible for biodiversity and people.
As detailed in a previous blog the Government are concerned that pre-commencement conditions are slowing down the planning process and hampering the delivery of development. As such they have set out to put a mechanism in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill which will require LPAs to acquire the written agreement of the applicant before they can use a pre-commencement condition. This would appear counter-intuitive, adding an extra layer of bureaucracy rather than requiring applicants to come to the process fully prepared. The Trust is also very concerned that such a move will put LPAs off imposing vital ecological pre-commencement conditions.
The Woodland Trust has led on Wildlife and Countryside Link’s briefing to Members of Parliament on this matter we have also been fully engaged with the associated consultation process led by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Disappointingly the Bill has passed through the Commons with this particular clause intact and the Government’s response to the consultation has been to ignore these concerns. This was despite only 44% of respondents supporting the proposal and clear opposition from the Home Builders Federation and the Planning Officer’s Society along with the environmental and archaeological sectors.
THE Government claim that these concerns are unfounded as all decisions must be made within the context of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and as such woods and trees enjoy an appropriate level of protection. But with over 600 ancient woodlands under threat from development we know that isn’t the case, the NPPF is clearly failing ancient woodland.
As such The Woodland Trust will be continuing to speak out against this dangerous proposal as the Bill moves into the House of Lords this year.