The good news is that the Government recognises the importance of distribution and provides considerable guidance in its various strategy documents – how local planning authorities interpret these documents is in itself an interesting subject. And so it should.
Core logistics activities account for some 4% of gross UK output, and are worth £55Bn and employ a million people. Tax paid by both logistics businesses and their employees are vital to the economy, as is an effective distribution system.
The Government set out a policy framework in its Sustainable Distribution Strategy back in the late 1990s which looked at land use planning to promote a sustainable distribution sector, including freight methods. It provided strong guidance to local authorities on how they should approach planning requests from business and the criteria to be applied.
Each council has its own plan to illustrate and interpret how the national guidelines are to be applied locally, and any plans submitted must be reviewed to make sure that they meet local requirements. In some cases the issues raised may have national relevance, in which case companies should check planning guidance notes issued by the Department for Transport (DfT), Local Government and the Regions.
Planning procedures provide a means to control how land is used and local and national bodies have development plans showing where and which types of development will be permitted. Planners may work in local or central government, or with private sector consultancies. Both must confirm to their professional organisation, the Royal Town Planning Institute.
While each local authority will have its own specific policies, they will follow the core Government policy framework which addresses the following issues:
Local authorities should allocate sites for distribution and warehousing purposes, bearing in mind road access and potential for rail and water-borne freight. Government policy since the 1990s has encouraged, with some success, companies to use rail and water for freight movements, to reduce road congestion and to provide a more integrated, sustainable and environmentally sound freight infrastructure. So warehouses with the potential to move freight by either of these methods will be sympathetically received.
Buildings which are likely to attract high levels of freight movement should be located away from congested areas with good access to local and regional road networks. There should be little dispute on this issue as almost any business will apply the same criteria for a new warehouse. And disused or brownfield sites will almost certainly be favoured over greenfield projects.
Environmental issues of all kinds will weigh heavily for or against a project and be addressed in the local authority’s Green Transport plans. Presenting a strategy to minimise the impact of vehicles on the locality will help overcome possible objections from residents. Developments should be located where existing passenger transport systems are convenient for staff and facilities for cyclists may be welcomed. The Government’s National Cycling Strategy sets out to encouraging this form of sustainable transport. And waste management facilities should be served by rail wherever possible or located so that lorry traffic is minimised.
A project employing few staff may minimise the impact on traffic and rush-hour congestion, but additional employment may be welcome in areas of high unemployment. Understanding the priorities of the local economy will help determine the more important issues. Distribution facilities can often employ more people than some manufacturing plants, particularly operations with labour intensive order picking and other value-added services.
Warehouses which will be used to store hazardous materials will receive particular attention. The authorities will be concerned to ensure that companies have taken all precautions against the possible effects of spillage on local watercourses where relevant, that the structure is designed to contain fire or other incidents which could harm residents, and traffic movements are organised to minimise danger to road users.
Now to present plans for approval. While anyone can apply it is usually preferable to use someone with the right skills and experience such as a chartered surveyor, project manager or architect. If you are not yet the owner you have to inform the owner including any leaseholder who has seven or more years to run, or any agricultural tenant.
Getting to know your local planning officer early on may well pay dividends. You can get a view on whether there seems a reasonable chance of approval, what specific problems may arise such as roads and access, water courses, risks to schools and hospitals and whether council will impose conditions rather than not approve the request.
Other bodies that you may wish to informally consult include neighbours, the local parish or town council, and any other organisations which may have an interest, including the Environment Agency (sewage, flooding or water), the Highway Authority (road traffic and safety issues) or the Health & Safety Executive.
You can opt initially to submit an Outline Planning Application to find out whether the project is acceptable in principle. This means that detailed drawings are not needed but it will help to provide as much information as possible. Do not forget to show how your plans address the concerns of the local Land Use Planning policies.
It may be useful to find out the times of the planning committee meetings. A well timed submission could save three to four weeks, and you have the right to attend the meeting considering your application.
Once Outline Planning Permission (OPP) has been granted a company can apply for Full Planning Permission which will also include details of siting, access and external appearance. The proposals must be consistent with the approved OPP document however. Alternatively for companies wishing to change the use of land or buildings, or where time is vital, you can apply directly for Full Planning Permission.
Companies should expect to hear within eight weeks, although larger or more complex projects may take longer. The fee will depend on the type of development proposed.
If your plans are refused and you think you have a strong case, then you should consider an appeal as one in three is successful. Appeals are handled by an independent planning inspector appointed by the Secretary of State, and can take four to six months to progress but if they go to a public enquiry it can take nine months or more. If all else fails or if you do not get a decision within eight weeks of the appeal you can appeal directly to the Secretary of State.
While some of the requirements you come up against appear onerous, remember that those on the planning committee may be faced with a number of conflicting pressures that they need to reconcile. And they cannot be expected to understand your business as well as you do.
Time spent familiarising your team on local issues and priorities may help to identify problems – or opportunities – which if tackled early and positively may ensure a sympathetic hearing. And developing good relationships with planning staff is more likely to win their confidence than presenting them with an ‘all or nothing’ solution. Many local authorities would welcome informal discussions and consultation on major proposals before they are submitted.
Remember that the planners who may be resisting your proposals in one part of the country may be kin to those defending your interests as a resident where you live. If national policies are relevant you may wish to check the planning guidance notes issued by DfT, Local Government and the Regions.
Above all, make sure that your plans are supportive of the councils’ development plan, which will show that you have both taken the time to get to grips with local issues and considered them in your planning.”
Laurie Sice is senior chartered surveyor with distribution property specialist sbh.uk.
Tel: 0870 606 0123.