The key to planning reform is not to wait around for top-down change, says Gareth Capner. It is the people on the ground who need to get the ball rolling
John Prescott recently announced the results of the consultation on last year's planning green paper and set out the government's proposed approach. Some of its reforms will require primary legislation, such as the abolition of structure plans; others, will require additional funding, such as increasing the resources for hard-pressed planning departments.

Then there the proposals that simply require a change of approach and attitude. These include the simplification of local plans and their integration with emerging community strategies, the use of statements of community involvement and ways that planning departments can meet target decision dates, such as delivery contracts.

My practice, Barton Willmore, has been involved in negotiating planning permission for an 11-storey extension to a listed building in the centre of a major town, and its change of use to a hotel. In the process, we have had to deal with many of these issues.

  • Simplification of local plans
    The grade II-listed building was originally designed as the first railway hotel outside London, probably by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The internal structure was destroyed by fire and then by its unsympathetic conversion into offices in the 1960s and 1970s, but its setting and historical associations remain important. When the lease on the building ran out, Barton Willmore was retained by the freeholder to explore the reuse and redevelopment of the site.

    The recently adopted local plan – which had taken many years to comprehensively examine the whole area at a cost of many hundreds of thousands of pounds – was, of course, completely silent on the future of the site. Indeed, none of the sites allocated for hotel use in the local plan had actually materialised.

    This brings us to the heart of the flaw in the plan-led system. These documents, with their 500 or so policies that try to cover every eventuality, are overly complicated and restrictive and can never achieve all they set out to. This is understandable – the local authority's ability to see into the future is extraordinarily limited. Therefore Prescott's proposals for local development frameworks, based around flexible core policies, is greatly welcomed.

  • Integration with community strategies
    Despite the problems with the local plan, we were helped by a recently adopted community strategy for the town, in which our site and its surroundings was envisaged as a focus for tall buildings. Consequently, there was a clear logic to our proposals: we could reinstate the historic hotel use of the listed building and provide a 150-bed town-centre hotel by adding a high-rise extension that would enhance the setting of the original building.

    The recent local plan – which had taken many years to comprehensively examine the whole area at a cost of many hundreds of thousands of pounds – was, of course, completely silent on the future of the site

  • Statements of community involvement
    Pre-application discussions with planning officers, architectural watchdog CABE, the local English Heritage officer and a presentation to the planning committee gave us confidence to work up the full application. This then became the subject of wider discussions with town-centre stakeholders and interested parties. We reported these discussions in an unofficial statement of community involvement.

  • Meeting target delivery dates
    A clear 13-week timetable for determination was then agreed between us and the local authority, with agreed response times to requests for further information. This was the first time that the planning authority had identified an absolute timetable in writing for the negotiation and possible amendment to the application. This kind of written agreement is akin to the government's proposal for delivery contracts that would set out timetables for the processing of applications.

    The planning officers, although obviously stretched to the limit, were committed to meeting the timetable – even including being available for very early morning meetings.

  • Increased resources for planning departments
    One problem was the authority's outsourcing of specialist advice because of budget constraints. The retired conservation architect who commented on the application clearly had not grasped the holistic nature of the proposals – or indeed the damage done to the existing listed building. The architect unrealistically asked for trenches to be dug to examine the site before the planning application could go ahead. This was despite the fact that the desk-top evaluation revealed no such work was necessary, making his request contrary to government planning guidance advice.

    Then, as in all projects, came what I call "the Dick Turpin moment". This is when the highwayman from the Highway Authority turns up in a black mask, brandishes his flintlock pistols and demands "your money or your planning permission". He wanted £150,000 as a tariff towards unspecified area improvements and cited a precedent agreed on another development by some firm of surveyors.

    We told him to think again, as tariffs had not been agreed and the official document on planning gain only requires specific gains directly related to the development. We settled on a new CCTV camera and contribution to environmental improvements directly outside the hotel – at a total cost of £62,000. We obtained our resolution to grant planning permission last month.