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Adding Q&As to the planning applications process

IT would not take much to include a question-and-answer format to the current planning applications portal operated by The City of Edinburgh Council – and, by the looks of things, every other local authority in the land.

At a very basic level, it could be simply another document, joining the several (sometimes dozens) that already appear as part of an application.

There are several possible advantages to the planning process being distilled into a Q&A format. For one thing, it is easy to interrogate – including for councillors adjudicating applications at ‘committee’ stage. For another, the questions usually get to the point. And they put applicants on the spot, not least if questions are framed as simply a yes or a no.

Defenders of the status quo might argue that the answers can be found easily enough, in the documents already submitted by the applicant. But that is to make a huge assumption; and, anyway, if the answers are already there, then it should be easy enough for the applicant to pluck them out and insert into the Q&A template.

As it is, the documents often found attached to a planning application can be complicated to understand, heavy-going to read, and are often of a technical nature, of relevance only to those officials within the planning department with the necessary expertise.

Of course, the devil is in the detail, as to what exact questions require answers. But we can surely allow ourselves to make a first stab at what most people might wish to ask.

When we are talking specifically about planning applications for significant (say, at least 20) housing developments, it is surely about putting oneself into the shoes of prospective residents, with an overlay of city ambitions, including the target of being carbon neutral by 2030 (whatever that means, exactly).

The 200-odd pages that comprise the Edinburgh design guidance PDF is laudable in its willingness to recognise past ‘mistakes’. But its language tends to be equivocal, as its title suggests: as guidance, little of it is mandatory, much of it is open to interpretation and negotiation.

By putting applicants on the spot, by asking specific questions, there is less room for warm words, to wriggle out of making concrete commitments. Every press release might speak of ‘sustainability’, but what does it actually mean?

A healthy dose of scepticism probably wouldn’t go amiss. ‘Weasel words’ would likely stand out, ‘a mile’.

There are several possible chapter headings to the Q&A, including facades, environmental footprint, community spirit, food production and car parking.

Where they are absent from the design guidance, they could be woven in, easily enough, to help the city oversee the delivery of new housing that might stand an outside chance of meeting all those challenges of 21st century living, including the ‘climate emergency’, ‘massing’ (ie relationship with neighbouring buildings), the ‘circular economy’, traffic congestion, social isolation and diet.

Let’s begin with car parking. A visit to the Quartermile district of the city finds car parking almost entirely sent underground. Contrast that with other housing developments, where car parking clutters land that otherwise could be use for recreation or food production. So, the questions become those of car parking location, the provision of car sharing, the percentage of land at ground level intended to be given over to car parking.

Let’s move on to food production. A community that grows together is likely to be more socially cohesive than one that doesn’t. Notwithstanding the likely positive mental health spin-offs, a community garden can potentially deliver fresh produce without the accompanying ‘food miles’.

Turning to community spirit, there’s a strong argument for hands-on involvement at the design, ground works or construction phases of a proposed development. It’s going to be people’s homes, so why not, especially if the very exercise of doing something together has a chance of engendering friendships and trust?

The Cohousing movement would argue for more, such as the provision of a common kitchen / dining / meeting room, plus tool sharing and a minimum number of volunteer hours.

Answers to questions about community spirit would signal to what extent the planning applicant has given any thought to how the development might actually function for the people living there, beyond the provision of cycle paths and walkways, where people might bump into each other and magically strike up a conversation.

The issue of facades is one of both aesthetics (ie the risk of monotony and ‘poor quality’ fabric) and care and repair. It would be additionally instructional to what extent the proposed developer is willing to produce an inventory of where to source spare parts and materials.

These chapter headings each merit their own, more detailed investigation. But they at least give rise to a provisional set of questions, to be going on with.

No-one could reasonably claim them to be superficial or irrelevant.

So, here goes:

  • Where is the majority of residents’ and guests’ car parking likely to be located? At ground level, underground, on the roof or elsewhere (e.g. neighbouring streets)?
  • What steps have been taken to enable residents to car share?
  • What percentage of any common ground level space is intended to be car parking?
  • What provision is there for ‘easy access’ into the town centre without using a car? If more than one bus required, which ones?
  • What materials are you proposing for the road and pavement surfaces, given that standard-issue tarmacadam, with stones in it, can have a habit of breaking up?
  • What percentage of any common ground level space is to be food production or recreation?
  • To that extent is the option of food production to be assisted by the installation of greenhouses, tool sheds, potting benches and composting bins?
  • Is there a simple formula or number to confirm the whole development meets ‘climate emergency’ concerns and targets?
  • Who has undertaken the science / calculation behind your previous answer?
  • To put things another way, to what extent are your homes going to be ‘Passive house’ compliant?
  • What steps do you propose to take to minimise the use of single-use plastics?
  • How many solar panels (and what size, square metres?) per household?
  • How many electric vehicle charging points?
  • How would you describe your proposed development, in terms of its relationship with neighbouring buildings (ie size, proportions, facade materials, etc)?
  • What pro-active steps are proposed to engender a ‘sense of community’?
  • What provision is there for hands-on involvement by the prospective community in the housing build?
  • What provision is there for communal TV, broadband and satellite TV services?
  • What percentage of the proposed homes have direct access to either a private garden or a balcony?
  • How far away is the nearest GP practice, dentist, grocery shop (or convenience store), pub, bowling green and hairdressers?
  • Re both the nearest GP practice and dentist, how long the waiting lists?
  • What is the plan for refuse collection, including recycling?
  • What, if any, plans are there for rain water harvesting and waste water ‘use’?
  • What personal and property security provisions are planned? Where might the development be most vulnerable to break-ins?
  • What are your proposed anti-vandal measures? Where might the development be most vulnerable to vandalism?
  • What biodiversity plans do you have for the site?
  • To what extent do you intend to provide an inventory, to enable residents to organise future maintenance and repair?
  • Do you intend to programme any on-going maintenance and repair to the development, yourself? Such as a ‘factoring’ service?
  • How monotonous are your proposed facades?
  • Do you intend commissioning other architecture practices to design different parts of the exterior look of the proposed development?
  • What is the proposed facade materials and how prone might they be to deterioration, discolouration, damage, graffiti, etc?

If a developer is unwilling to answer the above ‘serving suggestions’, might that not say speak volumes about how much they care?

And should a question be deemed ‘not applicable’, there is nothing to stop the developer saying as much.

Meanwhile, if a developer is taken by surprise by any of the questions, isn’t it a good thing that they are being asked to devote some time and effort to consider them?

After all, they are likely to cover some very commonly-held concerns.

Mike Wilson is a member of the BuiltEdinburgh team

Pictured: Cars, cars everywhere and barely a blade of grass to be seen

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