This is an in-depth and complete examination of the planning system in England, specifically applied to Camden and Bloomsbury, designed to be readily accessible to the layperson. It has been co-authored by a layperson and a retired senior planner, both members of the BCAAC: the independent heritage advisory for Bloomsbury and the surrounding area.
Read time: 20 minutes
Everyone can appreciate beautiful buildings and places, and locations rich with heritage tend to be some of the most beautiful in the world. The architecture of times past is highly valued by the public, with historical buildings carrying both aesthetic merit and strong resonances. People enjoy seeing beautiful things and being in beautiful places. Along with the appearance of historic buildings, their very age and survival through the centuries affords a level of respect and legitimacy that modern buildings fail to replicate. The quirky and crooked features, smells, and sounds of an old building or place can transport the senses across centuries to a different era, something that no amount of learning can achieve. For all this, old buildings and places are invaluable to society, which is why we and other conservation bodies exist.
Although we may be driven by the simple emotional desire to preserve our heritage and all that comes with it, we find ourselves within a logical and complex system where this can only be achieved by doing certain things at certain times and in certain ways. Although we could simply conduct ourselves stating what we feel ‘should’ happen, such an approach is ineffective in the face of mountains of policy and bureaucracy. It is essential to channel our efforts correctly, and this page will explain how you can do the same, by examining the planning system and our role within it.
Certain Technical Terms
There are certain terms used throughout planning-speak which appear at face value to be unremarkable but carry great significance not generally known to the public. Some of these are particularly relevant to conservation and are explained here.
The inherent quality of an historic or beautiful area may not be obvious to all, and so legislation and policy use a certain set of words to help unify descriptions.
Architectural and Historic
‘Special interest’, or sometimes referred to as ‘special character’, is a technical term meant to signify the quality of an area or building that makes it of cultural interest. For example, the special interest or character of a Georgian terrace is the fact that it is Georgian, appears beautiful, and it may often have some important internal features such as its floor plan, or an intricate cornice, or creaky floorboards. All this makes up its special interest.
Special interest can be of two types, architectural and historic. The architectural interest of St Pancras Station resides in its intricate gothic form and detail, and the huge span of the train shed. Its historic interest resides in the history of the building itself – that it was designed by Gilbert ‘Great’ Scott, that it was threatened with demolition in the 60s, etc. Each of these encompasses its historic and architectural interest. Generally speaking, architectural interest is something that can be seen, whereas historic interest is something that can be read and interpreted.
Appearance and Character
The special interest of a building or place can manifest itself in two ways – in its appearance, and its character. The appearance of a mansion block is large, weighty, imposing, and typically red, and designed classically. But what is its character? Its character contributes to its interest, but not in ways that can be seen. For example a mansion block has a distinctly residential character to it – it is lived in, rather than worked in. If the block were to be sold and converted into an office block, although the appearance would remain the same, its character would change. Conservationists aim to protect both the appearance of a building or area, and its inherent, underlying character.
Preserve and Enhance
Changes to an area or building that are of heritage value should either preserve or enhance their special interest. These words are the most well-known by the public and are self-explanatory. A usual misquotation however is that ‘changes to a conservation area should either preserve or enhance it’. This is wrong. Speaking in the language of conservation, ‘changes to a conservation area should either preserve or enhance its special character‘, where special character comprises both architectural and historic interest.
Armed with knowledge of these technical terms, we can now decode the statement of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, on our front page:
‘A Conservation Area is an area of special historic or architectural interest, the appearance or character of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.’
The History of Planning: Law and Policy
Planning law comprises the set of laws relating to ‘planning’ – a synonym for building works. The name comes from the fact that the laws were supposed to help development occur in a ‘planned’ fashion – similar to how Bloomsbury is planned around squares and open spaces – although today it simply serves as a way for the local authority to control any type of development, and perhaps leverage some funds from it. Historically, there was not much by way of planning law. Before 1909, buildings could be built wherever and in any fashion, although in London development was sometimes controlled by Royal Proclamation, something similar to a law which often would prohibit building whatsoever (although these proclamations were not always rigorously enforced).
Planning law was introduced in the Housing Town and Planning Act 1909, which prohibited back-to-backs and encouraged local authorities to take an active hand in development, in a primitive form of planning policy. The act empowered local authorities to partition their land into zones, with types of development only permitted in certain zones. A landowner with land in a residential zone could then build any number of houses without permission, but could not build a factory, for instance. Planning control was largely unpopular, however, and at the outbreak of war in 1939 only 4% of local authorities had a finalised scheme, with 70% in the process of making one, and the remaining 26% still had no developmental control whatsoever.
The lack of developmental control was addressed in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which repealed all previous planning acts. The new act placed an obligation on all local authorities to prepare within three years a zoned plan, along with an explanation of their decisions. This plan would be submitted to the relevant Minister for approval, after a six week period for any objections from the public. An inquiry would then be held where an inspector for the Minister heard all objections, with cross-examination of witnesses from the public and local authority, and his recommendation would be given to the Minister. The Minister would then usually approve the plan with some modifications, with no right of appeal, except in the case of some error in the process of the whole affair, such as not leaving enough time for objections.
Crucially, whereas beforehand landowners could build whatever they felt complied with the local plan, all landowners were required after 1947 to apply for planning permission, with the local plan only indicating what was likely to be approved or not in different areas. If permission was refused, or the conditions of approval were too stringent, an appeal could be made to the Minister. This largely reflects, in a simpler way, how things work today.
The Act of 1947 also made provision for buildings to be listed, and the landmark Civic Amenities Act of 1967 formalised the notion of a conservation area. Two of our conservation areas – Bloomsbury and Fitzroy Square – were promptly designated under this act in 1968, an indication of their national importance, and also the commitment of the council of the time to conservation.
Four major acts known as the ‘Planning Acts’ were passed in 1990 – the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA 1990), along with three supplementary acts – one of which was the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, under which listings and conservation areas are now designated. The acts of 1990 are the ones which remain as the main planning acts today.
The Localism Act 2011 allowed communities to create their own ‘Neighbourhood Plan’ for their local area.
Planning Law: The Planning Acts
The two Acts most relevant to the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas are the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA), which deals with planning permission in general, and the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, which deals with planning permission for listed buildings and conservation areas.
The TCPA: An Overview
The TCPA places an obligation upon those planning to carry out ‘building operations’ to apply for planning permission from the local authority. Building operations is defined in the act but it broadly encompasses any sort of change to a building that would usually be undertaken by a builder – demolishing it, altering it structurally, or extending it, for example. It also pertains to certain changes of use of a building. The TCPA does not class interior modifications or ‘non-material’ exterior alterations to a building as requiring permission. The affixing of an advertisement to the exterior of a building does require planning permission. The TCPA applies throughout all of the UK.
The TCPA also allows the Mayor of London to ‘call-in’ applications that are relevant to all of London, and the Mayor then acts as the local authority, deciding the outcome of an application. This usually happens for particularly large developments. This means that Camden do not always decide the outcome of large developments within their area. The Mount Pleasant development, for example, was objected to by Camden but was approved by the Mayor of the time.
The TCPA also allows applicants to appeal to the Secretary of State if they disagree with the decision of the local authority. This means that if applicants have their permission refused by Camden, they can (and do) apply to the Planning Inspectorate for a reconsideration. This means that Camden does not have total control over determining applications – Central Government can overturn decisions. Unfortunately only the applicant can apply to the Secretary of State, so residents cannot apply for a review if they believe an application has been wrongly approved.
The Act also allows applicants to make alterations to approved permissions if the changes are ‘non-material’, without the usual advertisement and consultation period. This can lead to buildings ending up appearing significantly different from how residents expected. This happened with the Town Hall Annexe rooftop extension, where the applicant changed the extension from being the well-publicised gold and silver to totally black, to the surprise of some residents.
The Act also allows for Camden to revoke planning permission whilst building work is still being carried out, although such a revocation would require confirmation by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State can also himself revoke permission. It also allows Camden to ‘order’ modifications to a building or land and its use.
Section 106 of the TCPA is something particularly relevant to those in Camden. It allows Camden to place obligations upon applicants to ‘give something back’ to the area, in return for the harm that development and construction can cause to the local community. On the face of it, this sounds like a powerful tool to ensure positive change in an area, especially with the large amount of development in Central London. However it has become in Camden’s hands a form of ‘legalised bribery’, whereby extremely harmful development is permitted in return for funds, but the funds are not reinvested in the local area, but stored in a multi-million pound savings account, and spent on vast projects like the West End Project. It is one of Camden’s policies – the ‘Community Investment Program’ (CIP) – to essentially play the property market, allowing stupendous overdevelopment which tramples over their own policies to maximise the amount of funds secured through the Section 106. They make no secret of the fact – and its controversial effects have led Camden’s own Scrutiny Panel to investigate the policy, after it led to a number of tower blocks being approved in people’s back gardens.
The Section 106 and Camden’s CIP are why there appear to be entirely different rules for large developments and developers with money compared to the more usual applicant. Camden’s policies are rigidly enforced for those applications not large enough to warrant a Section 106, but for anything large enough, the priority becomes to extract as much money from the developer as possible. This leads to a number of ridiculous situations. Camden approved an office block in the courtyard of the listed Derby Lodge without much fuss, and yet refused to allow residents of Derby Lodge to have double glazing on ‘heritage grounds’. The office block carried a Section 106, but double glazing applications do not.
The Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act
The Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act places extra control on alterations to listed buildings and conservation areas, along with further statutory obligations. Accordingly, the act applies throughout all our conservation areas.
The act prohibits alterations to listed buildings which affect their architectural or historic interest, without planning permission. This ‘interest’ is something which is generally summarised in the listing of a building, found on Historic England’s website, but is not extensive.
The listing of buildings is undertaken by Historic England, the national heritage advisory, but the designation (making) of conservation areas is undertaken by the local authority. The Act places an obligation upon Camden to designate areas as conservation areas which ‘should be’ conservation areas, and to occasionally review whether borders should be changed.
The Act also places an obligation upon Camden to publish proposals detailing exactly how they plan to preserve and enhance the special character of their conservation areas. These plans can be found online, along with appraisals, although these documents unfortunately carry little weight in a conservation-lite planning department.
Section 72 places a duty upon Camden to pay ‘special attention’ towards the desirability of preserving or enhancing the special character of their conservation areas. What this means in practice is if Camden approve any developments not preserving or enhancing special character, they should give clear and convincing justification as to why not. In practice, Camden instead choose to falsely assess whether developments are indeed harming a conservation area to get out of this duty, often totally contradicting our own assessment and that of Historic England.
There is a great deal of law that we and planners must keep in mind and refer to in dealings with applicants as well as colleagues. Often making exact reference to a particular Section of an Act (for example Section 72 above) can be more effective than simply stating ‘you must preserve or enhance the conservation area’. However the law is not what planners keep at the forefront of their mind – the law empowers authorities to make decisions, and places some duties upon them – but which applications are approved and which are not is decided by adopted policy, rather than law.
Plans and Planning Policy
‘Plans’ are written by politicians, in an effort to embody how they think development should be carried out in their area, reflecting local priorities. Plans are made from individual planning policies, which can be brief or go into considerable detail. These policies must conform to planning law, but politicians are largely free to write what they like within legal boundaries. Whereas planning law empowers politicians to control development, policies dictate exactly which developments will or won’t be permitted. These planning policies are written in plain English and can be found online, and are included on this website.
All plans have policies appertaining to heritage matters. It is these policies and their application which we are most interested in.
Policies are not any form of law – they are supposed to act as guidance. A law must be abided by in all situations. However a policy is something less rigid – perhaps its function could be best described as saying that most policies should be followed most of the time. There must always be some reason for departing from policy, but the reason does not necessarily need to be convincing. Different policies carry different weight, so that very local policies can often be ignored with flimsy reasons, but national policy can carry a risk of court challenges if departed from without convincing justification. Policies give a strong indication of how an authority is likely to behave, but is not final. This is also relevant when different policies clash against one another, and one takes precedence.
The role of a planning officer, when considering an application, is to judge whether the application does or does not conform to the set of policies allocated to them. Thus although much disdain is directed towards planning officers, if they make poor decisions, they are only trying to enforce policies handed to them by their politicians. Poor decisions come from poor policies, which come from poor politicians, who are voted in by the people. Planning matters, although on the face of it simple, are in fact highly political. Planners in Camden have to weigh up perhaps a hundred or more different policies in coming to decisions, although due to the hierarchical nature of plans, the most local policies usually already satisfy regional and national ones, making local policy most relevant.
Planning officers may also be under pressure from policies not obviously related to planning matters. This is certainly the case in Camden.
There are a number of different plans affecting the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas.
Certain Technical Terms
There are a number of terms that are used in policies relating to heritage matters, which appear unremarkable but carry significance. These are explained here:
A heritage asset is anything which has some sort of heritage value – something of historic or architectural interest. These can be all sorts of things – a listed building, a conservation area, or an interesting lamppost. In principle it can even range to things as simple as doorknobs or kerbstones. It does not need to be of historic interest, but can also be of architectural interest – so that contemporary architecture can be judged to be a heritage asset. The British Library, for example, is considered a heritage asset (being Grade I listed), along with the Brunswick Centre (Grade II listed). The Brunswick Centre has occupied a considerable amount of our time, the owners seemingly unaware of their obligations with regards to its listing. A little known fact is that it was our insistence that a pedestrian route be maintained through the Waitrose store, preserving its character.
Heritage assets can be ‘official’ or ‘unofficial’. For example, whilst all old buildings are of historic interest, only a relatively small proportion are listed. A listed building is ‘officially’ a heritage asset, and is so described as a designated heritage asset. Similarly, a conservation area is a designated heritage asset because the local authority has decided it is worthy of the status of being a ‘conservation area’. Anything officially of historic or architectural interest is described as designated, and the process of making it official is called ‘designation’. Thus: Bloomsbury was designated as a conservation area in 1968.
Undesignated heritage assets are still heritage assets, but are of lesser value. Heritage assets of any type – designated and undesignated – are considered in planning policies.
Heritage assets can be of varying value – for example, St Pancras station is Grade I listed (high designation) whilst a kerbstone in Bloomsbury is of low value – being undesignated. There is another technical term meant to signify importance.
The significance of a heritage asset defines its relative importance. There is no well-defined set of terms describing significance – generally words such as ‘high’ or ‘low’ are used, along with ‘national’ and ‘international’ significance. For example, an interesting lamppost would be a heritage asset of low significance, perhaps of local significance. Any listed buildings are considered to be of ‘high’ and ‘national’ significance, and this is a key consideration in whether a building should be listed or not. Some heritage assets can even be of international significance. This would relate to things known and of academic interest to people throughout the world. The Bloomsbury Conservation Area for example is described as being of international significance, by virtue of its ‘internationally significant’ example of town planning (its formal layout around squares) and its historical association with the Bloomsbury Group, and of course the millions of international tourists which it attracts every year.
Generally speaking, the more significant a heritage asset, the greater weight that should be given to its conservation during the balancing process of deciding what constitutes ‘acceptable’ harm to an asset. A rooftop extension may be allowed to an asset of low significance (such as an unlisted building), but would never be allowed for an asset of high significance (such as St Pancras Station), at least in principle, although alas with Camden’s current approach to heritage assets it would not be altogether surprising. The Bloomsbury Conservation Areas are generally of high importance, and so their conservation should be afforded great weight.
The amount of harm done to a heritage asset speaks for itself. It signifies how far a development damages the architectural or historic interest of an asset. For example, demolishing a listed building would cause it great harm, whereas painting its windows in different colours would cause it a small amount of harm. There are four types of harm:
The titles are fairly self-explanatory. The first and last categories are the easiest to grasp. However the difference between ‘less than substantial’ and ‘substantial’ harm is something very often perverted by Camden’s officers, and of course developers’ own heritage assessments. The difference is very important because planning policies set out different approaches to applications if they cause substantial harm, or total loss. Much of the work that we and Historic England are meant to do is to honestly assess the level of harm caused by developments.
Each heritage asset has a setting. The setting is broadly thought of as what can be seen from the heritage asset – the area around the heritage asset which affects how it is perceived. For example, the setting of Cartwright Gardens would be the terraces around it, and the student halls opposite. The setting of a Georgian town house would be its surrounding buildings, the road which it is on, and perhaps its garden. Planning policies take into account harm to both heritage assets and their settings.
Armed with knowledge of these terms, we can better understand the language of planning policies.
The overarching plan in the UK is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). As the title suggests, it is a plan for the whole of the UK, the politicians which created this being those of the latest coalition government. It is meant to act as a simple framework for all other plans. As such it is quite brief, and only really states things which are largely obvious.
The NPPF’s approach to heritage matters outlines how all further planning policies should approach them.
Paragraph 189 states that applicants should carry out a heritage assessment as part of their application. This is meant to help applicants better understand the heritage of their site and surrounding area, so that their development preserves, or hopefully enhances the historic environment. Although well intentioned, this requirement is largely useless. There are a number of consultancies which are hired to carry out these ‘heritage assessments’, and they often attempt to rewrite history and underplay the significance of local heritage to try and disguise the harm that developments will cause. The fact that this assessment is so biased is partly why bodies such as ourselves and Historic England exist to carry out independent reviews. Historic England will carry out an assessment for proposals affecting listed buildings, whilst we of course deal with conservation areas. Our independent and objective assessments are in the end the ones that carry weight.
The NPPF then goes on to deal with when harm should be allowed to heritage assets. It is important to point out that it does not altogether rule out the possibility of harm, so that harm to heritage assets occurs all the time – for example the Town Hall Annexe rooftop extension caused harm to the setting of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, and the setting of St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, all designated heritage assets. Whilst this instance says more about the lamentable lack of care from Camden, it serves to show that ‘acceptable’ harm can be allowed in certain situations.
The NPPF essentially sets out that depending upon the significance of heritage assets, varying levels of harm can be caused, with varying levels of justification. Essentially, the higher the significance of a heritage asset, the less harm that can be caused to it. For example, an undesignated heritage asset, such as a kerbstone, could be destroyed so long as there was some justification – for example widening a road. This is because it is of low significance. However Bedford Square, a heritage asset of high significance, not only could not be destroyed, but only less than substantial harm can be caused, and even that should come with good reason. To heritage assets of the highest significance, such as St Pancras Station, and the planned squares of Bloomsbury, no amount of harm should ever be regarded as acceptable, the NPPF describing such instances of harm as ‘wholly exceptional’.
The NPPF draws a clear line in the sand for substantial harm, or total loss, which is of importance for conservationists. Paragraph 195 clearly states that substantial harm should essentially never be allowed to a designated heritage asset. Quite clearly, substantial harm should never occur to a conservation area or a listed building.
The NPPF does make an exception relevant to us that substantial harm can be allowed if it can be demonstrated that the harm is necessary to achieve substantial public benefit, and that the public benefit outweighs the harm caused.
This is why it is important for independent bodies such as ourselves and Historic England to assess the level of harm caused by an application to designated heritage assets, like our conservation areas and listed buildings contained within them. If we think that the level of harm is substantial, then Camden should reject the application. What this means in practice is that Camden should give clear and convincing justification if they choose to depart from this policy.
Unfortunately, due to the pressure of other policies, what we often find is that planning officers wiggle out of this responsibility by simply claiming that harm caused is always ‘less than substantial’, even when our own assessment and Historic England’s assessment quite clearly state that the harm is substantial. This is unfortunately reaching contrived levels where even when the majority of a building is demolished Camden claim the harm is less than substantial.
The NPPF states that less than substantial harm can be caused only when again the public benefits of the development outweigh the harm caused, although we are less concerned with such applications as we mostly end up busying ourselves fighting applications causing substantial harm, unfortunately.
It cannot be overstated that this framework is intended to be applied nationally, to areas of vastly varying environmental quality, not least conservation areas. In this context Bloomsbury must be regarded as truly ‘blue chip’ and its conservation to be of the highest priority.
The London Plan
Greater London is subject to the London Plan, which is drawn up by the Mayor of London. The London Plan is extremely long and detailed, but somewhat vacuous, and doesn’t state any policies of great concern to heritage matters. Being a ‘step-down’ from the NPPF, its policies must reflect those of the NPPF, but are supposed to be more specific to London. The London Plan unfortunately does not make any great protection for heritage assets as there should be in London, but more or less just repeats what is stated by the NPPF.
The main policies which are relevant to us are those regarding tall buildings. The plan attempts to prevent tall buildings in inappropriate places by stating that tall buildings should only be approved in areas where there are already tall buildings, or in an area subject to widespread redevelopment. It also states that tall buildings should not have unreasonably adverse effects on the immediately surrounding buildings.
Our conservation areas by their very nature at the heart of the city are especially vulnerable to the negative and numbing impacts of high building within its boundaries, but also of towers in surrounding boroughs. The London Plan policies regarding tall buildings should work to protect them from further harm of this type.
These policies are useful to us as Camden continue to attempt to force increases in height in inappropriate areas as part of their Community Investment Program. When tall buildings in inappropriate places are approved by Camden, they are automatically referred to the Mayor of London for his consideration of whether they fulfil policies in the London Plan (and the NPPF), giving us an extra opportunity to make our voices heard.
Local plans are the planning policies developed by local politicians for local government. Camden’s local plan was adopted in 2017 and applies to all of Camden. It is the next step down from the London Plan, and is the main planning document that planning officers keep in mind. This is because although the NPPF and London Plan are more significant than Camden’s plan, it is a requirement that each plan complies with those above it. Thus none of Camden’s own policies should contradict any of those in the London Plan or NPPF.
It does however happen though that planning decisions, although compliant with Camden’s policies, end up contradicting those of the London Plan or the NPPF. It is always best for us to make reference to the most senior planning policy which is breached – hopefully the NPPF – to highlight that a decision has gone against national policy. This carries much greater weight than if Camden were to simply depart from one of their own policies.
Despite Camden’s area being actually more conservation area than not, Camden does not set out any policy in their local plan which is not simply imitating those of the NPPF and London Plan. Policy D2 makes reference to heritage matters, whilst D3 relates to shopfronts, and that is all. These policies can be useful for us in examining small applications, but all of Camden’s policies are essentially ignored in the face of large development, so it is hardly worth examining them in detail.
The overriding factor in determining large applications, in a complete perversion of the planning system, is a policy called the Community Investment Program.
The Community Investment Program
The Community Investment Program is described by Camden as an ‘ambitious’ policy to secure funding for community needs in the face of austerity. However in reality it is an immoral scheme which seeks to subvert the planning system to milk the cash cow which is Camden’s heritage and Central London land, to pay for highly questionable schemes.
It could more appropriately be stated as a program to approve development that seriously damages and destroys communities to pay for minor investment in those same communities – akin to cutting off an arm to pay for a haircut.
Camden fund their ‘investments’ by leveraging a tax on all large development, through Section 106 of the TCPA. Section 106 was introduced to give a way for local authorities to make developers pay for improvements in the local area, to offset the negative effect that development and construction can have on communities. However Camden have taken this to the extreme, and actually encourage immensely harmful development so that they can gain as much funds as possible from the Section 106.
What this means in practice is that when a large application is on the table, Camden will ignore their own policies to allow the development to grow as large as possible.
Large developments usually go through a stage termed preconsultation. This is when developers and architects have not finalised their plans but share them with the local community and ourselves for comment. It is the best time to feed back on plans to try and shape their direction.
Developers hold their own meetings and site visits, and Camden also hold their own ‘Development Management Forums’ (DMF) where developers present their proposals in a public meeting, usually chaired by planning officers, and take questions.
The point of the preconsultation period should be to try and get possible concerns out in the open at an early stage to try and help developers avoid future clashes with local concerns after an application is made. However, it is regrettably debatable whether this is successful – it all comes down to the attitude of the developer. Some developers are genuinely interested in the views of local groups and people, whereas others will simply view it as a formality and ignore any concerns raised. Our experience tells us that although developers claim that we are being consulted at an early stage, invariably this is not the case – the design is already fixed, at least the floorspace, leaving little space for genuine involvement. Often the true impacts are disguised by misleading if not downright dishonest graphic illustrative material intended to minimise the potential harmful appearances.
It also gives an opportunity for major groups such as Historic England to give advice on proposals – specifically whether the harm caused is likely to amount to substantial or less.
It is genuinely in a developer’s interest to align their development with our priorities however, and it is perhaps in this sense that the preconsultation is most useful. Our consultation response carries weight and planning officers will always make some amendment to an application as a result of our objections, even if they do not always go as far as we would like. In contrast to Historic England, who only make passing comments but will never take legal action, we carry an extra danger for Camden and developers in that we also run campaigns, are associated with other prominent local groups, and do pursue legal action when we feel it is necessary to protect our heritage against harmful development.
After an application is submitted, there is a formal consultation period of four weeks. This is a period where anyone with an interest in the development can make a comment. Usually the consultation period is seen as the time to make as many objections as possible if the development is harmful, as they often unfortunately are.
It is useful to access the application documents online. There will be various technical documents which can be difficult to interpret, but the Design and Access statement usually contains helpful visuals of how the development will actually appear.
Local authorities have a duty to have regard to consultation responses in determining applications. It is unfortunate that the technical wording of this statute means that it is a lot weaker than most first perceive. The public generally hope that if the consultation responses are overwhelmingly negative, then an application will be rejected. This is however not the case.
The consultation does not act as any sort of a vote. When planners come to decisions, they are mainly considering the mountains of planning law and policies – and in the case of large development, no doubt the Community Investment Program will be at the forefront of their mind. Whilst ‘having regard to’ consultation responses is indeed a legal duty, ‘having regard to’ is not a particularly strong requirement. What it means in practice is that Camden should give a reason for ignoring responses, but the reason does not need to be a particularly convincing one. So long as Camden give a proper reason for ignoring responses, they have fulfilled their legal duty.
Although this is disheartening, consultation responses can carry more force if they make reference to policy and law, or the assessment of Historic England or ourselves, or any other bodies involved. Particularly if Camden depart from the NPPF, legal challenges can be brought against them.
Unfortunately also the minimum requirement for notifying residents about the consultation period is often to just affix notices in the immediate area.
What this means is that Camden are actually far better at consultation in general (at least for planning matters) than most local authorities. They go above and beyond what is required by law. The fundamental issues with consultation not being rigorous and responses being ignored comes down to law and central government. Improving consultation is essentially a matter to be raised with the local MP. We were very fortunate in having our former MP the late Frank Dobson living in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area on Great Russell Street, as he always had time to chat and indeed was an original BCAAC member following our formation by Camden Council in 1968. It is unfortunate that the current MP appears to have little interest in our work.
It is much more effective during the consultation period to try and lobby local councillors, the planning committee, and the planning officer concerned (whose name and email can be found online), by communicating with them and perhaps trying to set up a meeting to discuss concerns. This face-to-face contact often is far more effective with Camden than emailing or messaging, and can work wonders.
Making a Decision
Once all consultation responses are in, the decision making process begins.
The Planning Officer Makes a Recommendation
The planning officer concerned will eventually come to a decision for his recommendation. It is important to note that he or she does not decide the outcome of the application – they act as an expert adviser.
The officer, usually in light of consultation responses, or clashes with policy, will make amendments to the plans and suggest that these are approved instead. For example if many people object to an extension on grounds of height, it may be approved but with revised drawings cutting height in half. They also may recommend approval subject to a Section 106 agreement, even in the case of relatively small development, to secure some funds.
The rules are generally different for large and small applications. Camden tends to hold the upper hand in negotiation with small developments and will happily make alterations based on policy and consultation responses, generally respecting heritage matters. For large developments, developers very much hold the upper hand and Camden tend to allow anything past but recommend a Section 106 deal to compensate for any harm caused.
Once a recommendation is made, applications are formally decided through two different routes.
About 90% of applications are decided through delegated powers. Delegated powers exists to allow councillors only to concern themselves with significant development, ‘delegating’ small applications to their civil servants. If there are objections from three or more addresses, or an objection from a residents’ group, us, or a ward councillor, the application is first referred to the Members Briefing Panel. This is a group of three councillors – Heather Johnson, Flick Rea, and Andrew Parkinson. Cllr Johnson is the chair of the planning committee, Cllr Rea is the vice-chair, and Cllr Parkinson is a planning barrister. They decide whether in light of objections, the decision should be made under delegated powers or referred to the planning committee.
Although their recommendation is usually final, the Executive for Supporting Communities reserves the right to overrule their decision. This has been used and met with some controversy in the past.
If the application is referred back to delegated powers, a senior civil servant will then make a decision to approve or reject the application.
10% of applications go to the full committee, a panel of fifteen councillors. All large developments go to the planning committee.
The committee meeting allows members of the public and local groups to make a deputation – a two minute speech in an attempt to make your voice heard and influence decision making at the last moment. Councillors can then ask questions of the deputees. Whilst this is largely seen as a formality, with speechmakers trying to cram in as many statistics and grievances as possible within two minutes, a well-thought and timed speech can have an effect. During the British Museum’s north-west extension, which we opposed vigorously, we made a deputation and the ensuing debate resulted in the application being refused, causing significant delays and costs in redesign.
The committee will then after asking questions about the development will vote on the application. Although it sounds very democratic the committee generally ask vacuous questions and go with whatever the officer recommends. Especially for large developments, councillors are in no position to question the expertise of their officers. The full report for large developments can often be hundreds of pages long, and it is doubtful whether councillors take any interest in it.
Appeal and Judicial Review
If an application is rejected, applicants usually appeal to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State then considers whether the decision made by the local authority was correct. They can and sometimes do reverse the decision. This means Camden do not hold total control over planning applications – they have to make sure they don’t wrongly reject applications, otherwise they may have their power overruled. It is much more valuable to approve a decision subject to a Section 106, to make the most of the opportunity presented.
Unfortunately there is no similar process if Camden wrongly approve an application. This institutional inequality means there is always a presumption in favour of approving applications if there is any doubt in their merit.
The one option open to us or the public is to pursue a judicial review. These can however be prohibitively costly and come with significant risk. Not only is it necessary to raise around £7,000 in the first instance, if you lose you may have the legal costs of the opposition pinned on you. When up against large development companies, this is an extremely frightening prospect. Furthermore, judicial review is generally only successful if there has been some sort of an error in the process of application itself – for example if the consultation was not held properly. Judicial review cannot be pursued on the grounds that most wish it could be – on the grounds of merit. That the development may be fundamentally harmful and ‘wrong’ is sadly not relevant.
The planning system is immensely complicated and our part in it is just one small cog among many larger ones. The lesson perhaps to take away from it all is that prevention is the best cure for harmful development. Whilst it may seem logical to campaign vigorously during the consultation period, if an application has already reached the consultation period it will most likely be approved. Harmful development is encouraged by harmful policies like the Community Investment Program, which are formulated by harmful politicians, who are voted in by the community themselves. National policy is formulated by MPs voted in by ourselves, and the London Plan is formulated by the Mayor of London, voted in by ourselves. The planning system is fundamentally democratic but in an indirect and subtle way. Any real change to the conservation of our heritage can only be effected by politicians.