Radical action

How to get the planning system working better. By Zaki Ghiacy

The planning system is broken. As a recent National Audit Office report outlined, we’re nowhere near building enough homes – and the planning system is the biggest reason why not.

Between 2005-06 and 2017-18, just 177,000 new homes per year on average were built and the number has never exceeded 224,000 – far short of the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. In fact, 300,000 new builds has never been achieved in the last 40 years.

The construction industry is certainly doing all it can. According to a recent survey of more than 400 housebuilders undertaken by McBains, more than half of respondents (57 per cent) reported that they had increased their rate of housebuilding over the last 12 months. But they are hamstrung by the system. Asked what the biggest issues were affecting the amount of homes they could build, half of respondents cited slow planning permission.

To meet the ambition of 300,000 new homes built a year, the Government will need to oversee a huge 69 per cent increase in the average number of new homes built since 2005-06. But that target will remain a pipe dream unless several issues around the planning process are addressed.

Firstly, the standard guidelines that local authorities use to assess the number of new homes needed in their area is outdated and too rudimentary. Specifically, the guidelines use household projections based on past trends, which calculates that 265,000 new homes per year are required, rather than future estimates. The government collects a wealth of data and indicators which could be used to help determine numbers required in each area, such as population growth and affordable housing need.

Secondly – and this is a problem which has existed for decades – there is a paucity of strategic planning on the part of local authorities. According to the most recent data, less than half (44 per cent) of local authorities had produced a current local plan outlining their strategy to provide new homes. Although this requirement is a legal obligation, the Government fails to sufficiently challenge those that do not produce one. There should be the threat of penalties, such as a reduction in the central government grant for those local authorities that fail to deliver a strategic plan, or central government should draw up a plan itself for those authorities and impose it.

Speeding up planning permission also needs to be tackled. The NAO report says that local authorities may be increasingly processing planning applications within target timescales, but this might reflect a greater use of time extensions rather than increased efficiency. In particular, planning appeals are desperately slow – the time it took to determine an appeal increased from 30 weeks to 38 weeks between 2013-14 and 2017-18.

One reason for the grindingly slow progress is that spending by local authorities on planning functions, such as processing planning applications, fell 15 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18. The Planning Inspectorate has struggled to recruit, experiencing a 13 per cent fall in staff between 2010 and 2018.

Furthermore, those planning officers that are in place are increasingly swamped by dealing with minor planning applications, such as permitted developments. This means that the capacity to focus on larger applications – such as ones to build on brownfield land – is significantly affected. One thing that could help is to outsource parts of the planning process. This wouldn’t be an entirely new concept: for building regulations, the approved inspector role was privatised, so the same could happen for the planning process right up to committee stage.

This would mean the private sector carrying out procedural functions – processing applications, putting noticeboards up around sites, writing notes for the planning committee, and setting out the positions available to applicants – leaving planning officers free to deal with strategy, policy and macro aspects. The elected planning committee would continue to act as gatekeeper by considering applications once brought to committee. In fact, this idea isn’t a great leap from what has been introduced in some local authorities – some years ago, for example, Westminster City Council, for example, used three staff directly paid for by developers to speed up reserved matters applications. There has also been use of local development orders (LDOs), which pre-grant permission for specific types of development: Aylesbury Vale District Council in Buckinghamshire has pioneered their use for householder developments, meaning the 7process takes up to two weeks, compared to eight for usual planning applications.

On occasion, the committee process itself can be an issue, with developments approved by planning officers being over-ridden for political reasons. Privatisation of planning will help with the resourcing and recruitment of planners, but the committee stage will continue to be a hurdle without robust local plans. One option could be to privatise the preparation of binding local plans. With clear guidelines, approved by committee, it is unlikely planning applications would be refused for political or trivial reasons.

Finally, more broadly – and admittedly this is a long shot given the political ramifications – greenbelt boundaries need to be reviewed, starting with those areas that do not have adequate land supply to meet housing requirements. Much of the greenbelt is far from the bucolic image conjured up by the name – for example it’s often land lent to intensive farming, is disused gravel pits or golf courses. According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, there is enough greenbelt within the confines of Greater London to build 1.6 million houses and even if only a tenth of this was used it would still deliver 160,000 new homes, a significant response to the housing need.

The planning process should be facilitating development, not hindering it. So, it’s time for radical action, or else in 20 years’ time another report like the NAO study will be coming to the same conclusions.

Zaki Ghiacy is a Director at McBains, a consulting and design agency specialising in property, infrastructure and construction with operations in the UK and Europe.
For more information, please see https://mcbains.co.uk