Bad business: submit and appeal

The planning system in England is complex and frustrating. Once an applicant has navigated the commercial challenges associated with a site, their team must construct a scheme that reflects local and national planning policy, in collaboration with the local authority responsible for determination and, for the enlightened developer, with the local community before running the gauntlet of local political machinations in order to achieve a consent.

Some have mastered the process, others have not. Planning recently released a piece of analysis that identified planning applicants who have appealed the most application refusals since 2012. Land promoter Gladman Land topped the list having been involved in 197 appeals in those seven years, more than double the second placed organisation, and had succeeded in only 48% of these cases.

Appeals are a necessary part of the planning system. An applicant should have the ability to challenge a decision on policy or legal grounds and in instances where they, genuinely, feel the decision-making process has broken down. The mechanism also helps focus the minds of planning committee members who must factor in the financial costs to their taxpayers of making nakedly partisan decisions on schemes that cannot be defended at appeal by their officers. Overall, the ability to appeal makes for a better system.

However, the approach taken by Gladman Land, which has resulted in it appealing a determination just under once every two weeks for the last seven years, is one that is not fit for purpose and one that inevitably impacts on developers who take a different tact. Every application refused at committee and then challenged through the appeals process is representative of a failure somewhere in the pre-decision planning process and that has consequences for the way the development industry is viewed by local stakeholders.

A fleeting investigation into three recently refused schemes indicates a real distance between Gladman and the community and political stakeholders within the community it seeks to develop in. The Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) submitted to support schemes in North Warwickshire, Nuneaton and Bedworth and Glean in Kent suggest the land promoter has a hastily developed, formulaic and uniformly applied approach to community engagement that fails to give even the illusion of collaboration with the community.

Community engagement, in the Gladman model, consists of a leaflet drop to the immediate neighbours, a published project website, some minimal proactive press activity, and briefing letters being sent to local councillors. Whilst Gladman states on each of these documents that it is “pleased” with the level of participation it has enjoyed as part of the “consultation” process, residents are provided with little to no opportunity for face-to-face engagement with project team personnel and the materials produced are designed to inform rather than encourage feedback from a local community.

Unsurprisingly, little in the way of positive commentary within the local community is garnered and councillors are afforded the space within which to refuse the scheme, in full knowledge that this would cheered by their alienated constituents. Of course, it would be wrong to suggest to the lack of community engagement accounts fully for the refusals that have been handed out by local authorities. Other site-specific factors come into play and it is impossible to account for the complex technical factors without engaging deeply with the individual decisions made.

But, frankly, a developer who does not want to engage properly with a local community, particularly when a scheme does not align with the objectives of an adopted Local Plan, does not deserve to get a consent from the local authority. A developer that runs an aggressive appeals-based strategy that favours volume over all metrics is a developer that gives the illusion that it is purely concerned with financial gain and taints those that try to do the right thing.

Developing planning applications in a feedback vacuum is a recipe for bad planning outcomes, resentment within local communities and a public image for the development industry that is on a par with the very politicians who are refusing these schemes. You may not think a refusal and a subsequent appeal in North Warwickshire is your problem now, but if you happen to end up working in an area where this type of approach has been deployed, prepare to wade through the mire of negative that get left behind.

So, Gladman Land, here is the challenge. Embrace community engagement as central to your business model. Give residents a change to shape the proposal, target the hard to reach voices within who often go unheard during a planning process but are pre-disposed to support development activity because they cannot afford to buy a home. Try and build a positive narrative around the future of the site you are promoting and create an environment in which local decision-makers can consent more of schemes.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? You never know, you might even be able to save a few legal fees in the process.

Zac Slater