Chris Morgan at the Heart of Planning

There are certain professions that by their very nature are unlikely to win any prizes in the popularity stakes – a Tax Inspector being one example, Planning, being another.  And so it was, as a young man fresh from university with the world at my feet,or so I thought, that I decided to become a Planner – a noble profession. 

That was more years ago than I care to remember.  Now as Director of Planning at the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Authority, looking back I can safely say that the intervening years have been eventful and not without their challenges.

Wales’ three National Park Authorities have the unenviable but intrinsic task of striking the right balance between environmental, social and economic considerations.  Nowhere perhaps, is this more keenly felt than in the field of Planning  and Countryside and Land Management where we strive to meet our dual objectives of conserving and enhancing the unique character of the National Parks whilst at the same time providing the conditions that allow the parks’ communities to thrive and businesses to flourish.  

Unlike the National Parks in the US, which are largely uninhabited wilderness areas, Wales’ National Parks are very much living communities with over 80,000 people residing within their boundaries and providing employment for approximately 30,000 people.

When the idea for this column was first mooted, my initial reaction was ‘do people really want to see my face first thing in the morning when they’re reading the paper and eating their cornflakes’ – more to the point ‘do I’? I still hold the belief that planning is a noble profession but inevitably we receive more than our fair share of criticism and sometimes I feel more like a referee at a local derby.   This column will hopefully allow me to set the record straight on a few matters, dispel a few planning myths and more importantly give readers a better idea of what we do, day to day. 

So where to start – yes, the arrival of autumn and with it a report from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB Wales) – ‘Planning in National Parks’ – just another day at the office.

Autumn announced itself with its usual unapologetic splendour – as brazen in its show as the report from the FSB which painted a gloomy picture of the planning process in Wales.  The document which was sent to Assembly Members and Members of Parliament suggested widespread dissatisfaction amongst those who’d submitted planning applications within our National Parks.  What the FSB were less keen to disclose were the number of people interviewed for their report and with good reason.  It later transpired that only 16 people across Wales had been interviewed – a number that cannot be considered a representative sample of such a large area

When we read something without context, we only see a distorted impression of the full picture.  This is certainly true of the recent FSB publication which, when put into context, lacks credibility and is in stark contrast to the approval of 85% of all National Park Planning applications and a 90% satisfaction rate amongst those who’ve been through our planning process.  I was naturally disappointed that the FSB decided to publish such a misleading report which if taken at face value could have seriously undermined the positive work that we do. That said, even one dissatisfied customer is one too many and we are always striving to improve our service. 

It’s been a busy and challenging time for my team and I’m very proud of the way they’ve responded to some of those challenges.  In the month ending 26 September, 86% of all planning applications we received were determined within 8 weeks and 100% of all household applications within the same time frame.   Regular scrutiny of our determination of planning applications (monthly) means that we’re continually raising the bar in our efforts deliver good customer service.     

Readers may be all too familiar by now with the Bannau Brycheiniog Local Development Plan (LDP) which after seven long years of public consultation is reaching its final stages.   On 17 October 2013 the National Park Authority received the Inspectors report. We have 10 working days to fact check the report but cannot edit its content or format.  The Inspector requires our observations by 31 October 2013.  The National Park Authority must adopt the Local Development Plan within eight weeks of receiving the final report.   I would like to take the opportunity to thank my team for their hard work throughout this process.  

I hope readers will have found this, my first column, a slice of planning life at the National Park informative and helpful.