Speeding up the planning system?

By Richard Anderson

Much fanfare has been given by the Government to the long-awaited Planning White Paper.  Much attention/vitriol/exasperation has been given to specific elements, cue a national diktat for housing numbers spewed out by an algorithm.  In my view, less attention is being paid to the manner in which planning applications should be determined more promptly.  Take aside the complete removal of decision making if your site lies within a new Growth Area, is speed required and how can this pan out in practice?

Determining planning applications

Last week, MCHLG revealed those planning authorities who sit below the threshold whereby they could be placed into “special measures,” (but have not?).  Here the instant headline was the finding that the number of authorities sitting in this category has doubled since the start of the year.

Whilst there are some authorities who may claim they have been unfairly highlighted, they (like Exmoor National Park), have only had 2 major “district matters” to determine in this period, for others, the number of applications received can be in the hundreds (Ashford, West Oxfordshire, Preston) and where determination within the 13 week window is considerably below that (64, 68.6 and 61.2% respectively.

Urbanissta are dealing with a planning authority who sits on the national planning naughty step and have struggled to get what is a major “district matters” application before committee, where we believe this is due to their internal resources being stretched (and to be fair but to a lesser extent) some pressures accrued due Coronavirus.

Lichfields report last month, “Small Sites: Unlocking housing delivery,” focused on 60 planning permissions in London for between 10 and 150 homes.  The numbers are startling:

  • 60 weeks – the average determination period for planning on these sites is well over a year
  • 1 – only one of the 60 permissions was determined within the statutory 13-week period with only 2 in the Governments 26 week planning guarantee
  • 2 years – a fifth of permissions took longer than 2 years from validation to decision
  • 75% – in 75% of cases, affordable housing and viability was one of the main issues in determination, with a third of the case delayed by protracted debates over land value

Again, here at Urbanissta we can see the problems clearly.  For one site which was allocated in the Local Plan and had an extant permission, a proposal which did not contravene either of the latter, from pre-app to submission to planning committee/Member review to actual planning committee to decision notice, it took just over a year.

For MCHLG, it is all very well rattling out those authorities who are underperforming (for the measures, 2 authorities are ranked in the top 3 worst performing authorities), since January 2015 no council has been penalised utilising “special measures” where The Planning Inspectorate were to step in to determine and reform. 

As the White Paper points out (P36), “The well established time limits of 8 or 13 weeks for determining an application from validation to decision should be a firm deadline – not an aspiration which can be got round through extensions of time as routinely happens now.”

A new approach?

The White Paper (if enacted) allows for the Secretary of State to grant “permission in principle”, separating the decision about the principle (location, use and quantum) of whether housing development should be approved from a later technical details consent process.

“Proposal 6”, advocates a series of measures to also speed the decision-making process, some being:

  • A “new, modular, software landscape” to automate routine processes
  • Shorter and more standardised applications
  • For us planning consultants, a standardised planning statement of no more than 50 pages!
  • For many aspects a greater standardisation of documents, reports and processes determined by Central Government

For determination, having chosen not to place poorly performing authorities in “special measures” since 2015, attentions are turning to “incentivise” planning authorities.  Here, this may mean an automatic refund of planning application fees if not determined within the timescales or even an automatic grant of permission for some forms of development particularly “infrastructure that communities value,” such as hospitals and schools.  How does this sit with more established and recent mantras such as “Localism” and “Levelling Up”?

Not surprisingly, views on the approaches being advocated have been strong and diverse.  Local Authorities generally have been hit with significant budget and staff cuts, for planning that is evidenced in stretched teams of officers being stretched further.  Urbanissta are working in one area where the (very experienced) case officer has taken on heritage matters after that officer departed and the post was not filled alongside recently being left with the resignation of a sole landscape officer and struggling to cover that post satisfactorily.

The White Paper does indeed point to the future and to improved data capture, software, “data-rich planning application registers,” “digital templates,” and “national data sets, standards and templates.”  The housing numbers data approach/algorithm has not invited a positive response the Government would have wished for, will the others mentioned also fall foul?

Right now, lets remember, this is a White Paper, consultation is still open (ending in 3 days) and the end enacted result in content and indeed its program is unknown.  Change is afoot, perhaps some more certainty will follow, a few planning authorities when determining planning applications are very poor, most, in our experience are only poor given the resources currently available.  In one particular instance, such is our client’s frustration with a time-lagged planning committee process that matters which would be previously amended/held out for/refuted prior to determination may be addressed post positive determination. 

At the end of the day that client just wants to “Build, Build, Build,” and we as a planning profession need to see that this can occur as promptly as possible within the democratic principles which have been enshrined since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

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