… Planning

November 9, 2010 at 12:17 pm 2 comments

The planned Localism Bill will “devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions,” which must mean that local people will be asked (or will offer) to get more involved.

Meanwhile the British Toilet Association are encouraging locals to fight for better public toilets through their ‘Where Can I Go?’ campaign; a ‘bottom up’ approach – getting locals to demand things from their local government. They’ve already tried the alternative top down version when they spoke as witnesses at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) 2008 Select Committee into public toilets. But despite the committee’s recommendations, the DCLG refused to impose any statutory duty or national demands relating to public toilets: a new approach was needed.

So local governments make the decisions on public toilets and local people should get involved.

But how do local governments make decisions? and how do we get involved?

Planning seems like a big issue here.  Local authority toilets must be designed into town regeneration or urban planning processes.

Not that local authorities can afford to build toilets at the moment, so the public will turn to cafes, supermarkets and shopping centres. If these are approved at the planning stage without any loos being included then it’s too late to go back and add them.

And then there’s Section 106 Agreements. These seem to be some sort of legitimate bribe when it comes to approving planning permissions. A sort of ‘we’ll let you build your housing development if you throw in a chlidren’s playground’, getting the council a freebie for something they’d have otherwise had to provide.

Toilets have been built through these in the past – the ones at Trafalgar Square were thrown into the deal when the square was redeveloped (hidden under the steps on the opposite side to the cafe if you’re ever there!).  But the agreement has to be clear as to who’s going to run them once they’re built. The developer might construct the toilet block but won’t want to be a toilet manager – they’ll lock the door and throw away the key!

What the DCLG did do was to write a Strategic Guide for local authorities to help them provide better loos.  The Guide mentioned that planners could use the British Standard for toilets BS6465, Section 106 Agreements, the Local Development Framework and the (now deceased) Local Area Agreement, amongst other concepts meaningless to the local resident-turned-campaigner.

Lucky for us, planners understand these things. But was the Guide read by the planners ? And if so, how does it relate to how planners make decisions?

After speaking to some planners and trawling the Planning Portal I made this diagram (pre-election), showing information that’s involved in Planning Decisions. I’m not claiming it’s right, but it’s what I could gather.

First comments – it’s ridiculously complicated and there’ll be many less formal things that I haven’t considered.

Where are the toilets in the diagram?

Part G of the Building Regulations does mention toilets in buildings in a functional ‘provide a water supply’ kind of way. A good start.

And the British Standard? How does BS6465 fit in?

Although I’m sure councils will have access to British Standards, a planner I spoke to said they’d only look at them if it’s mentioned specifically in the Planning Policy Statements that come from the government. I can’t find a mention of public toilets in any of them. In any case British Standards are only recommendations; I’d imagine a developer would have some strong complaints if they were turned down on this basis.

Of course there’s nothing to stop a planner consulting the British Standards for reference if they wanted to make more work for themselves, but I don’t understand the train of thought.

“This is an interesting proposal for a shop in excess of 1000sqm. I wonder what BS6465 part 1, Sanitary Installations – Code of practice for the design of sanitary facilities and scales of provision of sanitary and associated appliances has to say?”

Apart from a mention in the Strategic Guide, why would they even know that there is a British Standard for publically accessible loos?

Ah yes, the Strategic Guide. Well a planning department might well come across this amongst all the other relevant and irrelevant documentation that exists in government. There’s a mention of it in another guidance document called ‘Looking after our Town Centres’ which is catagorised as relating to ‘Planning, Building and the Environment’, (the Strategic Guide is catagorised as ‘Local Government’), but that’s a bit of a long shot.

I expect the reality of how local government makes decisions is through people in the council talking to each other. Someone in charge will have received notification of the Strategic Guide when it came out and forwarded it to the guy in charge of the toilets, who then read it and saw the recommendation that  local authorities have their own public toilet strategy. The result of the local toilet strategy will be someone in council monitoring the current provision and pushing the planners to consider further opportunities when planning developments arise. A quick google shows that some councils have done just this.

And how can the public get involved?

Some of the local planning stuff has a community consultation stage, such as the Local Development Framework.

But the one for my borough is technical, extensive and 200 pages! It’s not designed for residents to participate in; the only contributions come from local or national organisations with the time and expertise to comment. If it wasn’t for my research project I wouldn’t even know what the Local Development Framework is (still don’t, come to think of it).

The Localism Bill will need to drastically simplify the above planning diagram and redesign how councils communicate with residents (or rather, how residents can communicate with councils) if they really want local involvement.

But at the moment the ‘official’ routes are failing. The real results come from talking to each other!

At a very local level there are groups, in particular older people’s forums, who have campaigned and complained about public toilets sufficiently to get their local authorities to take notice. What this might mean in practice is that on receiving so many complaints from the electorate, the previously failing authority sets a council worker the task of researching public toilets who then comes across the Strategic Guide and they follow its advice and set to work on their own strategy. Seems feasible.

Or locals can do the traditional thing of commenting on individual planning proposals and request that the council consider more publicly accessible toilet facilities, particularly if there’s a big local development or regeneration project.

There’s one near me in the South London area of Nine Elms, the ‘town centre’ of which will be the new development of Battersea Power Station. The power station developers did a public consultation with 3789 participants, which threw up this response:

Given the option, people want and need public toilets.

The Nine Elms regeneration project is going to take 10-20 years, so when’s the right time to start whining about toilets? I saw that the Power Station developers had requested planning permission and I thought that that was too early for little details like this, but after going through all the related documentation (which took a day!) I found that the proposed floor plans already illustrate the loos. They may only be proposals, but if permission is granted then the developers aren’t going to stick more toilets in at the expense of valuable retail space! So I submitted my comments.

If and when the Power Station is redeveloped, I’ll tell you if it made any difference!

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