Does the Planning System work?

In the last twelve months the construction and property industry has gone ‘off the scale’ in terms of activity, particularly in/ around London, but increasingly in the regional cities now also.

During the recession Local Authorities were quick to scale back their Planning department resources. It seems then, and indeed now, that Planning isn’t considered a particularly important component for Councils, perhaps because they don’t generate much (direct) revenue. Some are better than others in terms of performance, but its definitely a lottery as to how you will fare and a costly one at that!

For sometime now I’ve had growing views about the effectiveness of the Planning system.  The people you deal with a often junior and lack experience/ understanding of design and Planning. To broaden my perspective on this issue, I’ve been canvassing opinions from professionals in the industry recently, especially Planning Consultants. A theme emerged which supported my concerns.

In January this year I submitted a minor Planning Application to Derby City Council for some modest alterations to a domestic house. The stated determination period for an application of this nature is 8 weeks. It actually took 23 weeks to receive the decision. Was there a reason for this? No. Did I get a decent explanation as to what had gone wrong? No. Nothing. Not even an apology. In fact before they finally released the decision notice I was asked, in writing, to sign a form accepting an extension of time, before they would issue the notice?! This presumably relates to their performance figures, but what an unbelievable way to operate, especially for a public sector body. The irony here is that the proposed works to the property will take around 10-12 weeks, so how can Planning take twice as long?

For larger applications, probably mostly commercial developments, under the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) it is now a requirement to engage with the Local Authority prior to making a formal application. This makes a lot of sense. The NPPF states; “Early engagement has significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system.” The key word in that statement is ‘potential’ because in practice it doesn’t always work. On one Pre-App submission I have been involved with, it took 16 weeks to get a formal response. An  Planning Application should be dealt with in 13 weeks. I think the reality of Pre-App is that it is often used to stall the process, not improve it.

Pre-Application dialogue isn’t (I don’t believe) measured or tracked in terms of performance. Therefore if the department is a bit busy, they can let things drift a bit it terms of responding. Indeed they aren’t actually obligated to respond within any specific timescales?!

So here lies the problem; In a largely private sector led industry of investors, developers, contractors and consultants, you have to work smart and deliver on your commitments. Fail to deliver and you get sacked. Pretty simple.

The Councils however can do what they want really and certainly don’t seem to consider the commercial realities of how investment and development works. In two sectors I’m very close to, Residential and Student Living, programme delivery is critically important. Losing a few weeks/ months in Planning can seriously compromise projects.

It seems that central Government want the investment, jobs and new buildings to stimulate economic growth and enhance/ regenerate communities, but unless the Planning system starts to become more effective and reliable, we will continue to struggle and even fail in some instances.

The construction industry faces many significant challenges at present, these include; material/ labour supply, cost certainty and commitment from Contractors to deliver. However I believe that the Planning system is also a critical issue which must be addressed.

I’ll be sending this blog to Brandon Lewis (Minister of state at DCLG for Housing and Planning) and Greg Clark (Secretary of State for DCLG). I hope to positively engage with them directly to discuss this and explore how things can be improved.

I’d welcome your views on this issue. If you agree with my concerns, please feel free to share this post to raise awareness in the industry.

 

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