Running a planning consultancy practise on a day to day basis, my general levels of frustration at the uncertainty that takes place every time a planning application is submitted on behalf of our clients are vast and the most common theme of discussion between professionals in the industry at the moment is: how can the issues be remedied?
There is currently great debate within the press and parliament on the delivery of housing supply. As identified in one of my earlier posts on recent government comment, the approach that has been taken to tackling the issue is to allow a limited number of potential land parcels the ability to circumnavigate the planning system in the first instance. This does not account for the administrative problems that may occur when these parcels of land have to acquire permission for detailed design, but that is not the predominant point of this post. The point is that the system can only be as effective as its weakest link allows it to be and at the present time the weakness is the planning departments within local authorities themselves.
This is not an attack piece on local authorities whatsoever; whilst I am frustrated by the approach taken on a day to day basis by local authorities towards applications, I do have great sympathy with the conditions that they currently find themselves working within. The issues as I see them, are that the departments are woefully underfunded, undertrained and understaffed and the resulting outcomes are that the skill set found on the opposite side of the table in an application scenario is inadequate in dealing with major complex applications. Applications that are significantly important to the socio-economic growth of the UK.
The slashing of departmental budgets over the course of the past 4 or 5 years has led to senior (but expensive) planning professionals leaving the public sector and as such the management structure of these departments being consolidated; weakening them as a result. However frustrated we feel in the private sector it cannot be expected that a graduate town planner, who may not even yet be chartered, be in a position to understand complex planning arguments that go beyond the simple black and white interpretation of local and national planning policy. We must remember that planning policy is open to interpretation, constantly evolving and materially flexible on a case by case basis. A relatively inexperienced planner working for the public sector, already disenfranchised and disincentivised by a lack of rising wage and a relatively short term contract with no job security, cannot be expected to either fully understand the arguments that are put forward nor the implications of rising above resistance to change at local authority level with no real incentive to do so.
This has resulted in both a significant slowdown in real terms in the amount of applications being permitted at a local level that have definitively proved themselves to be sustainable development, to the benefit of the wider socio-economy. In turn this places great pressure on the Planning Inspectorate who themselves have suffered with budgetary constraints, a subsequent backlog in the system and a lack of delivery as a result. The questionable statistics of central government demonstrate a growing delivery of planning decisions in comparison to the recent past; conveniently missing out two vital points.
Firstly, the growth in planning decisions in 2014/15 was always going to be higher than in the recent past as developers continue to recover from the kneecapping created by the economic downturn by way of submitting more applications. Therefore by default decision statistics will grow. Secondly, and most importantly, the fact is that decisions (and specifically approval) numbers have grown nowhere near to where they should be given the development friendly policy environment we are in post adoption of the NPPF in 2012. The policies are targeting significant and swift growth, the developers are making significantly more applications off the back of it, yet decisions (and approvals) crawl along at a pace unparalleled to the rate at which they are being applied for.
Whilst in the private sector we can provide with reasonable amounts of certainty, the way in which an application should be viewed and assessed when submitted, we can no longer provide certainty on whether the high standard of argument put forward will be appreciated as it should on the other side of the table nor provide any guarantees of how long an application can take to get through to a decision. This provides unnecessary uncertainty within the market. Whilst the planning application itself is always an informed risk, elements of an application such as timeframe factors, should be known with certainty. At the present time this isn’t the case.
There needs to be a robust underpinning of local authority departments throughout the country. Imperatively there is a need for senior private sector experience to be fed into those departments so as to make provision for the expected knowledge base to be available. Members of those departments have to be motivated and secure in their positions to feel that it is worth the stress supporting major applications that may politically be controversial but in planning terms be definitive and offer significant contributions to the socio-economy.
The same mantra applies to governmental body statutory consultees; who due to workload pressures cannot provide feedback and continued proactive correspondence within the timeframes of major applications. I hope that in ongoing hustings, conferences and especially in relation to consultation on the proposed Housing Bill in the autumn, this widely shared view continues to be hammered home by the private sector to Central Government in order to instigate change, so that these departments become robust and secure again.
MRICS BSc (Hons) RICS Accredited Expert Witness
NextPhase Development Ltd.