Is the planning system suffering from long covid?
Delays and uncertainty in the planning process are becoming an increasingly difficult issue throughout the built environment sector with a lack of clarity around the cost, time frames, or even a reasonable assessment of success in planning, creating a degree of risk to business that is untenable. We have clients questioning whether property development is even viable at an SME scale.
To interrogate this further we invited a panel of experts to join us for a webinar in which they would give their perspective on questions asked by the guests.
Some of the answers were as one might expect but some of them came right out of left field. Our contributors were: Justin Denno, of Belfield Developments, wearing the developer’s hat; Samantha Thomas, of Carney Sweeney, representing the consultants; Duncan Tilney, of Stephens Scown, taking the bench for the lawyers and David Edmondson, of Torbay Council, holding the line for planning authorities.
The webinar is available to watch through our YouTube channel:
But, if it’s just a taste you’re after, here are the headlines…
Q. With the requirements in planning becoming ever more onerous and the costs and time frames increasing, apparently, exponentially, should SME developers throw in the towel and let the national house builders pepper the country with soulless boxes?
A provocative start that, perhaps surprisingly, had most of the panel stepping up to defend the nationals.
Making planning more manageable for SMEs was the subject and two issues were identified as real obstacles. Validation requirements were one where it’s clear a current box-ticking exercise often results in information requirements that are not relevant to an application. This approach ‘…grinds everybody’s gears and undermines the credibility of the system’ is a particularly pertinent observation from the legal sector. The second point was the step from minor to major applications with the panel agreeing there are substantial differences between an application for 20 houses and 200 but the information requirements are the same. This is prohibitive for smaller developments but there was also acceptance that this would require change at national policy level which would not be swift.
SMEs are important and shouldn’t throw in the towel. In smaller unitary authorities like Torbay, they are the principal delivers of new homes but whilst the system appears to be against them it’s an issue to be addressed nationally rather than at a LA level. Some work to be done there it seems!
Q. Is sustainability and energy efficiency in new buildings an issue for planning or should it be reserved for Building Regulations?
There was plenty of engagement with this question from both the panel and the attendees, posting questions, but there was a clear divide in opinions. The planning authority position was a clear yes, these issues should be addressed in planning to avoid post-rationalisation of approved schemes that were not designed to deliver the necessary sustainable outcomes, but the consultancy world came back with a robust no! Construction details and specifications are issues for building regulations and only complicate the planning process.
The introduction of Part ‘O’ and overheating to the BRs is a further development in this area.
A good point made was that the SAP method of energy assessment isn’t fit for purpose. Where developers can add PV to a north-facing roof ticks a box to pass a SAP assessment there is something wrong.
If the energy assessment procedure was more relevant, architects and designers did their job properly and LA’s resisted variations due to poor or ill-informed designs, then perhaps this question goes away.
Q. Every decision to delay, defer, or request additional information during a planning application, increases the cost, risk and uncertainty of a project. Do officers and elected members receive any training around the impact of such decisions?
Staffing resources are a big contributor to delays but there is more to it than this. Local authorities are now data gatherers for other agencies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England who request more and more information!
Should local authorities enforce time frames for their consultees? Extensions of time, because consultee X hasn’t responded, shouldn’t be agreed and the consultee said if they can’t resource to provide a response in time then the decision (in favour of sustainable development) should be made without their contribution but there is a paralysis around being accountable. Are case officers now just postholders? Are the days of planning officers being the lead and assessing the balance gone?
There is recognition of the implications but no real strategy to address it and whilst there is training provided it is minimal and ultimately, elected members sometimes have their agendas.
Time frames, and the lack thereof, were flagged up as a more significant risk. Officers take weeks, if not months, to respond to communications. Where developers or agents have no communication, no indication, and no direction, the project flounders, and as an investment proposition development becomes very unattractive. Planning Performance Agreements are being used more widely to set time frames and, on larger projects, these enable an officer to be allocated to a single project with a clear plan and time frame.
There are some really good officers but we need to get away from the Us and Them mentality and find a way to work more constructively with LA’s but that requires the officers/members to be on board with a more consultative approach.
Q. Beyond the appeals system, which is equally dysfunctional, is there any mechanism to make local authorities more accountable?
Judicial review is a good place to start but, again, that’s time. A big stick approach or going public by shining a spotlight on the process asking if the action is in the public interest?
An alternative tack is clients just proceeding with a view that ‘if they don’t have the resource to determine this they’re not going to have the resource to enforce it and, if they do, I’ll just submit a retrospective application or an appeal’ didn’t see this answer coming but it reflects a lack of faith in the system. It’s considered there is a militancy emerging which is challenging the legitimacy of the planning system.
Stories abound from the panel of just doing it but it comes down to appetite for risk.
Perhaps, where there is uncertainty, no communication, no progress and one is confident that the proposals are viable from a planning perspective, then forcing the issue through the enforcement process is an answer but it feels more and more like the appeals system is going to become the de-facto planning system.
So, in conclusion…
We’re all trying to achieve the same thing, but we need to be working more collaboratively. A nice idea but there needs to be a better understanding of the pressures on both sides. Officers are entrenched and we’re not getting them out of this place by pummeling them harder.
We at Ortus, as a business, are trying to form stronger relationships with the LA’s we’re involved with but it’s an uphill struggle. Pre-apps, followed swiftly by establishing PPAs, look like a way to get clarity of time frames. Perhaps no quicker but some clarity, and the ability to manage expectations, would be a great step forward.
Beyond this we’re now working with planners to establish new collaborative structures and, if our MP ever returns a call, we’re looking to start directly on the government. Time, apparently, for a militant uprising! Who’s in?