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Meeting the Challenge of Changing Planning Categories

The way to achieve successful outcomes is not to have preconceived ideas. In fact, as a planning consultancy, we go out of our way NOT to dive straight in with assumptions.

For us, this is best practice and the current changeability of planning categories makes this approach invaluable.

Understanding the Client

Planners will have a specific skill set, a toolkit. But applying this requires a clear understanding of the individual client.

  • Who are they?

  • What’s their business model?

  • Are they innovating?

  • In what space do they operate?

There are theoretical and practical aspects to these questions. We must answer if we’re going to achieve the best possible outcome for each client.

As planners, we want to categorise land use and spaces. It’s an instinctive urge. But the best thing we can do is take a step back. First, we should assess and analyse, project by project.

Shifts in Category Trends

Our clients are working against a backdrop of shifting categories. The pandemic has accelerated these changes.

Again, this challenges any preconceived ideas we might have.

For example, look at the rise of co-living spaces. Increasingly, large numbers of people are no longer living in traditional households.

There’s co-living accommodation, where people have shared facilities, such as kitchens, and may also work in the same space.

You can also have co-living where there’s hotel accommodation attached to it. Spaces are becoming multi-functional.

How do we assess these types of projects? Co-living isn’t currently classified as residential land use. Local authorities classify it as sui generis – of its own kind and therefore not within a specific category of land use.

A major reason for this is to maintain control over the market. The Mayor of London is producing draft planning guidelines for standards of co-living units.

This will include things such as the size of individual units and the minimum number of kitchens.

But it can get complicated. You could be operating under hotel permission in a co-living space, for instance, without providing more kitchen usage. Under hotel permission, you may not be in breach of the rules, even though you’re providing new homes for people.

It means more problem-solving for planners though. There’s a difference between not leaping to conclusions and there being an absence of any category at all.

Going Back to First Principles

How do we navigate our way through a shifting set of categories and still achieve the best outcomes for our clients?

We go back to first principles. What's the land use and is it lawful?

Prospective land purchasers need to know what they’re buying from the start. What permissions does the land come with?

Of course, when it's sui generis, it becomes a question of understanding the specific local authority's policies, approaches and aims.

And then gathering evidence to support the proposed use of this land. Making a case, basically.

A crucial part of this is being helpful. Local planning officers don’t find it any easier than we do when it comes to sui generis land use.

Therefore, we need to demonstrate the strength of our client’s case, to help these planning officers see the benefits. We do this by first gaining a thorough understanding of our client and their objectives.

Sometimes, where the use-class isn't the right fit for the client, we can find one that is. Then we can make the case to the authority that this change of use is logical and beneficial.

Future Implications

Our work for our clients has implications for the future – not just for them, but for planning in the area.

When we look at a client's business, we need to understand its potential. Taking the correct route to planning approval should allow them to realise this potential.

We need to guide their decision-making and help them to avoid narrowing their planning options too soon.

And for local authorities, the strategies we follow for our clients can help them set precedents for future planning decisions.

Lifestyles are changing. The markets shift in response to meet these needs. Consequently, land-use categories change too. There will be more flexible permissions, increased adaptation and innovation.

We need to be ready to help our clients meet these challenges.

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