Tips to end planning delays

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week May 2008

Three powerful ministers are pulling the strings in yet another investigation into planning red tape. It will require courage and sharp scissors to tackle massed bureaucracy and conflicting demands.  Housing and Planning Minister Caroline Flint wants to ‘eliminate confusion’ but Communities Secretary Hazel Blears says greater efficiency must not ‘squeeze the ability of people to have a say’. Business Secretary John Hutton is fighting his own corner, complaining that planning delay is one of the top five concerns for investors.  Reconciling speed and accountability will be daunting, but a straw poll of property players has come up with some practical suggestions.

  Clare Malcomson, a senior surveyor at Jones Lang LaSalle, has seen both sides of the problem after working previously as a planner for Croydon. She suggests:

 Extending delegated powers to enable planning officers to take more decisions. This would speed up decision-making on smaller schemes and free planning committee time to deal with the larger, more important and contentious schemes.

  More flexibility on the 13 week statutory deadline for major applications. This often means applications are refused just to meet government imposed deadlines. Applicants want speedy decisions but most would rather have an approval in 20 weeks than a refusal in week 13 only having to submit a further application.

  The 13 weeks could still apply, giving applicants an ability to appeal, but they could enter into a contract with the local authority to extend this period which could be reviewed as the application progresses. Councils would be judged on whether they keep to the agreed contract

  Introduce developer contracts at pre-application stage. Most local authorities charge for pre-application advice but there is still limited commitment to providing a high quality and consistent service.  There needs to be buy-in at the pre-application stage for proper detailed discussions to avoid delays later and unnecessary expense to the applicant, she says.

  Remove the burden of non-planning work.  Local authorities need encouragement to find creative ways of ensuring that planners' time is freed up from non-planning tasks and administration, such as dealing with procedures that could be handled by others.

  Graham Stock, planning partner at Drivers Jonas, is keen to promote an old idea.  The government should define the level of detail required in supporting information to halt the growth in the boxes and boxes of information that planners ask for, he says.

 Sam Stafford, also at Drivers Jonas, saw in the US how applications were speeded up by consulting statutory bodies prior to submission. ‘We try to do this as a matter of course but if all applications were made to contain letters of accreditation by key consultees  such as highways and the Environment Agency there would be no need to consult further and it would reduce less comprehensive applications taking up officer time,’ he says.

  Tim Johnson, a partner at lawyer DAC, says section 106 agreements should be rationalised, limiting what councils can require and developers can offer.  More concrete and clear guidance which is legally enforceable should be in place. That would avoid unnecessary delays taking matters back to committee, or arguing whether requirements are legitimate.

  Matters to be included in applications should be rationalised and clarified, with penalties if applications do not meet these standards or councils do not register within 14 days of receipt.

  Larger schemes should have a delivery agreement that is enforceable with sanctions. This is not new but is toothless at present, he says.

  Planning departments should be properly financed, though not from the proceeds of section 106 agreements, and binding arbitration/mediation introduced in the event of stalemate. Finally, the appeal system should be speeded up, including judicial appeals.

  David Pretty, co-chairman of the investigation, will have his own ideas after 40 years as a housebuilder. He has already suggested a 12-week deadline for first-time buyer and affordable housing applications and an amnesty for minor domestic schemes, which account for around 50 per cent of applications and appeals clogging the system. This has been suggested in a planning White Paper but is not due to come into force until next year.

  Not everyone is enthused by the prospect of another investigation, however. Stuart Robinson, executive director of planning at CB Richard Ellis agrees that the planning system can be improved, not least with better resources, but what it needs more than anything is a period of stability without further reviews and reform.

  This government has already produced a planning Green Paper, a planning Act, two reviews by Kate Barker, a White Paper and now a new Planning Bill, he says.

A review aimed at speeding planning applications is being carried out by Joanna Killian, chief executive of Essex County Council, and David Pretty, former group chief executive of Barratt Developments.  Issues the government wants addressed include: