A Change Is Gonna Come (But Should It Really Need A Fresh Planning Permission?)

All change on Monday, with sight of the draft revised NPPF, but this blog post focuses on a more fundamental issue: how unnecessarily hard it can be to make changes to a scheme that has planning permission without having to go back to the very beginning again.
Why do schemes change post-permission in the first place? It’s unsurprising when you consider:
– the time that it takes to obtain planning permission for a large project, during which market demand or other circumstances may have changed;
– the extent to which relatively detailed parameters need to be fixed at such an early stage even for an outline application;

– the opportunities that often arise to increase densities or make other improvements once a house-builder or end-user takes over the reins from the initial applicant (for the avoidance of doubt strategic land promoters are a good and necessary thing – often no-one else is going to fulfil that upfront, high risk/high cost, role at the outset of long-term projects beyond a certain scale). 

These scheme changes are often to be welcomed and yet sometimes it seems as if the planning system conspires to prevent them. See Philip Barnes’ blog post ‘A simple way of increasing housing delivery‘ (11 January 2017) for an excellent articulation of the practical frustrations from a house-builder’s perspective. 
Of course there are two mechanisms available:
– section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 enables “applications for planning permission for the development of land without complying with conditions subject to which a previous planning permission was granted.”
– section 96A of the 1990 Act enables a local planning authority to approve a “change to any planning permission relating to land in their area if they are satisfied that the change is not material.”

But there are limitations to both procedures, some in the legislation itself (for instance section 73 applications cannot be used to extend the life of a planning permission and section 96A applications can only be made “by or on behalf of a person with an interest in the land to which the planning permission relates“), some by way of case law and some (the most problematic, because so uncertain) by reason of the breadth of discretion that local planning authorities have in determining whether the particular changes sought fall within the ambit of either procedure – not assisted at all by vague and unnecessarily restrictive advice in the current Planning Practice Guidance. 
The detailed position is set out in Town partner Clare Fielding’s 2015 paper to the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference From concept to construction: the law and practice of amending planning permissions. It is disappointing that we are still in as uncertain a place as we were then. 

The main problem is the lack of any firm rules as to the extent of changes to a planning permission which can be secured under section 73. The leading case remains Coventry City Council ex p Arrowcroft Group plc (Sullivan J, 21 July 2000), where there is the often quoted passage from Sullivan J:
“It is true that the outcome of a successful application under section 73 is a fresh planning permission, but in deciding whether or not to grant that fresh planning permission the local authority ‘… shall consider only the question of the conditions subject to which planning permission should be granted’…Thus the Council is able to impose different conditions upon a new planning permission, but only if they are conditions which the Council could lawfully have imposed upon the original planning permission in the sense that they do not amount to a fundamental alteration of the proposal put forward in the original application.” 
So the guiding principle is what is a “fundamental” alteration? “Fundamental” is a big thing as far as lawyers are concerned – think from the law of contract the principles of “fundamental mistake”, “fundamental breach” and “fundamental lack of consideration – it’s not just millennial adjective-inflation along the lines of fabulous, awesome and great!
And yet successive Governments have since 2009 described the procedure as the making of “minor material amendments” (hence for those of us in the trade the inevitable acronym of “MMA” for section 73 applications – lose that please folks!). The current Planning Practice Guidance says this:
There is no statutory definition of a ‘minor material amendment’ but it is likely to include any amendment where its scale and/or nature results in a development which is not substantially different from the one which has been approved.”
The roots of this are in the (now cancelled) document published first in 2009 and then updated in 2010, Greater Flexibility For Planning Permissions – a proportionate and timely response at the time to the financial crisis and its implications for house building and economic development more generally. Aside from re-introducing for a temporary period the ability to extend the duration of planning permissions, the document gave guidance on the use of the then new section 96A procedure for non-material amendments (introduced by the Planning Act 2008) and sought to “streamline and clarify” the section 73 procedure in the light of the Killian-Pretty review which had recommended that “the Government should take steps to allow a more proportionate approach to minor material changes in development proposals after permission has been granted” and some further work carried out by WYG, in which WYG had come up with that problematic wording:
A minor material amendment is one whose scale and nature results in a development which is not substantially different from the one which has been approved
The purpose of the guidance and the thrust of the Killian-Pretty and WYG work was not in any way to cut back on the use of section 73 but, by incorporating in guidance those references to “minor material amendment” and “not substantially different” the Government introduced confusion. “Minor material amendment” may be a handy phrase but a more accurate one, reflecting the law, would be:
less than fundamental amendment, whether material or not“. 
As a result of the confusion we have a patchwork situation where many authorities have been comfortable approving significant changes by way of section 73 (for instance Barnet Council at Brent Cross Cricklewood) but others have been running scared or seeking legal advice which is ultimately of little assistance – the authority must consider whether the changes are a “fundamental alteration of the proposal put forward in the original application”. That is a matter of planning judgment, albeit in my view “fundamental” means “fundamental”!
There has been surprisingly little case law, although two cases from last year are helpful:
R (Vue Entertainment Limited) v City of York Council (Collins J, 18 January 2017) where the court upheld a section 73 permission relation to a mixed use development, where the changes to the permitted scheme included increasing the size of a proposed cinema from 12 screens with a capacity of 2,000 people to 13 screens with a capacity of 2,400. 
– R (Wet Finishing Works Limited) v Taunton Deane Borough Council (Singh J, 20 July 2017) is also interesting – not just because a challenge to a approved change from 84 to 90 dwellings failed (how could that have been fundamental in anyone’s mind?) but because the 84 dwellings figure was included in the approved description of development and that was still not a bar on the change being approved via section 73. An area of repeated debate is whether a section 73 permission can achieve amendments to conditions which are inconsistent with the approved description of development and often a section 96A application is made to amend the description of development, replacing any reference in the description to numbers of, for instance, dwellings, with a condition to the same effect, so that that condition can then be amended by section 73. You begin to see the unnecessary bureaucracy, legalism (caused by fear of judicial review) and scope for uncertainty. 
So why not simply make a fresh application for planning permission rather than seeking to proceed under section 73? 
First and most importantly, inevitably there is less risk of being drawn back into a prolonged consideration of the merits of the proposal itself. This is of course another area that is not black and white. Whilst section 73(2) states that “[o]n such an application the local planning authority shall consider only the question of the conditions subject to which planning permission should be granted“, inevitably if policies have changed since the existing permission was approved the decision maker may seek to use the section 73 application as a means of applying them, asserting that the section 73 permission should only be granted with those additional or tightened conditions or obligations.
Secondly, rather than starting afresh with another full set of application documentation, it is likely to be acceptable simply to supplement the existing material where necessary, reducing significantly the scale of the application package for all concerned. Where the existing permission was supported by a viability appraisal that process will need to be updated (in London there is guidance on this in the affordable housing and viability SPG and policy H6 paragraphs G to J of the draft London Plan). A deed of variation to the existing section 106 agreement is more likely to be accepted, rather than requiring a fresh section 106 agreement. 
Thirdly, a section 73 application may be the only way of avoiding being hit for CIL on top of existing section 106 obligations which were intended to contribute to the same infrastructure requirements, where the local planning authority has adopted a CIL charging schedule since the original planning permission was issued. 
Fourthly, a flat £234 application fee rather than a fee of up to £150,000 for an application for outline planning permission. Maybe that £234 figure is too light, particularly where more than one condition will be changing from the original permission, but there is no basis on an amended scheme for paying the same fee as first time round. 
Of course, care is needed by the authority in drafting the section 73 permission (see my 14 October 2017 blog post Flawed Drafting: Interpreting Planning Permissions).

Why are there also arguments, in the context of section 96A, as to whether amendments are “material” or not? Well, section 96A is an extremely useful procedure, in that there a 28 day determination timescale (rather than the normal application timescale that applies for section 73 applications), there are no consultation requirements and it does not result in a fresh planning permission, meaning that there is no need to vary the existing section 106 agreement. Of course, again what is material (ie material in planning terms) is for the local planning authority to determine and as long as its determination on the issue is reasoned, any potential challenger to an approval faces an uphill struggle. Conversely, the applicant has no right of appeal to the Secretary of State. The authority is in a position, of (to be cynical) much power or (to be more realistic) being unclear as to what approach it should take – which again is a reason to consider whether clearer, more positive, guidance in the PPG is required rather than this:
There is no statutory definition of ‘non-material’. This is because it will be dependent on the context of the overall scheme – an amendment that is non-material in one context may be material in another.”
In unveiling the draft revised NPPF (and potentially draft revised PPG alongside it) on Monday, will the prime minister take the opportunity to clarify for us that “non-material” means “non-material” and that “fundamental” does indeed mean “fundamental”? Probably not, she will focus on grander matters I’m sure, but the section 96A and section 73 procedures are two of the dull, forgotten but necessary, nuts and bolts of the process that have the most tendency to jam. Jam today, no homes tomorrow. 
Simon Ricketts, 3 March 2018
Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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