WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
It is generally accepted that local planning authorities (LPAs) up and down the country are overwhelmed and under resourced. It has created a crisis in the system where officers simply cannot cope.
We believe that our planning system needs:
- More people
- More training
- To apply more common sense
Our planning officers are overburdened…
Budgets and staffing levels for core and specialist planning areas have been consistently slashed over the last decade.
- Plan-making teams have shrunk whilst having to deal with a policy system that is increasingly complex
- Specialisms like heritage and sustainability are hugely under resourced.
- Average case loads have increased to beyond acceptable levels, impacting on the quality of the service they can offer, and the timeliness of decisions.
…it’s led to delays in the system…
Years of issues stemming from as far back as the 2008 recession has resulted in staffing shortages because during the recession many planning officers were laid off and senior colleagues took voluntary redundancy. Add to that limited wage growth and unmanageable case loads and many simply took up job offers from the private sector.
The system consistently experiences delays – not just in achieving a resolution at committee, but in securing a legal agreement and getting planning conditions discharged to be able to start building.
…and a gap in expertise
Reduced funding and a loss of senior staff has inevitably led to a gap in training and expertise. That has had a knock on effect on the dynamic between officers and elected Members, who have found more of a voice and are often not so accepting of officer advice.
Beyond technical training, officers would benefit from greater commercial awareness to appreciate how decisions have a knock-on effect on the deliverability of the schemes that the LPA want and need.
Legal wranglings over the interpretation of a historic planning condition, or debates over the structure of a travel plan should not, in all common sense, delay the ability for a housebuilder to start building.
And delays to planning hit small and medium sized house builders – whom we are reliant on to achieve our national housing delivery targets – particularly hard.
Folks, we have a housing crisis in the UK and a possible recession on the horizon. Unlocking construction should be a national priority.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
It’s going to take some significant funding to truly address these problems. And there are a few ways in which funding could be achieved.
INCREASE FUNDING FROM CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
Whilst this is an important component, we’re not oblivious to the multitude of public sector departments that have suffered from reduced funding over the years, who all desperately need support. Cutting our public services to the bone is a false economy – our society can’t function without them.
INCREASE STATUTORY PLANNING APPLICATION FEES
Increasing planning application fees would go some way to address the resource shortage. It may not be popular with some applicants, but if it leads to an improved service, certainty and more timely decisions, many would welcome it.
Increased revenue could be used to recruit more staff, deliver more training and help with staff retention and recruitment.
However, whilst funding is crucial, it’s not enough on its own. Here are some other ways we think matters could be improved.
Improve the quality of application submissions…
Applicants – and people like us – can help officers by improving the quality of submissions. That means making sure that everything on the validation checklist really is submitted, and presenting the planning case clearly and simply. Plain English really matters.
Planning officers don’t have time to be wading through huge tomes to get to the nub of a planning argument: the length of a planning statement doesn’t determine its value.
The best work lies in a clear and succinct statement that presents the case clearly and helps to frame discussions.
Quality pre-application discussions could be an opportunity to reduce down the validation list on a case-by-case basis to only those items that are actually important.
… and apply more common-sense to the system
To be clear, we’re not saying that planning officers don’t use common sense. Rather, the system we are working with has become too much about box-ticking and in doing so, it’s all too easy to lose perspective on what the critical planning issues are for any given application.
Some practical efficiencies, in line with how businesses operate, would really help to streamline the system.
Perhaps our main problem which has brought us to this point is fundamentally a misalignment in the industry’s collective vision for placemaking. Rather than being viewed as something that needs to be controlled, we should be single minded in acknowledging that the planning system is the means by which we can deliver the high quality places that everyone needs and wants.
Officers and developers should operate from a position of ‘how can we work together to get this achieved’ rather than perceiving each other as their opponent. Local planning authorities have housing targets to meet and developers have houses to build.
We are, actually, on the same side. It just doesn’t always feel that way.
Bill Davidson, Managing Director at P4 Planning
So how could we apply more common sense to the planning system?
FEWER PLANNING CONDITIONS
Securing details controlled by planning conditions is a critical step in delivering development, so when they are not dealt with promptly it can create enormous delays even once a planning permission has been granted.
An appreciation of viability issues and the implications that delays can have should encourage officers to think ‘how can we limit the number of planning conditions on this permission?’.
Officers should be able to trust developers to design an appropriate fence, without always needing to submit details to be signed off.
MORE TIME FOR MATTERS OF PRINCIPLE
Less time spent wrangling over details would free up everyone’s time to focus on important matters that will shape development outcomes.
A common sense approach would mean LPAs looking for ways to relieve their officers from having to deal with minor matters like how many cycle spaces are proposed.
For us, the logical solution would be to attach fewer conditions in the first place.
MORE TRAINING ON THE COMMERCIAL SIDE OF PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT
Perhaps if we are not yet wholly aligned in our vision for placemaking, the best step towards this goal is to see things from each other’s point of view.
Planning officers (and particularly committee members) need better training in the commercial aspects of planning, whilst planning consultants could be better versed in the realities of public sector pressures.
In an ideal world, officers would appreciate the genuine time pressures associated with discharging a planning condition promptly. Committee members would understand the rules they need to operate within. And planning consultants would prepare quality applications with concise planning statements that officers can digest quickly without adding to their workload.
There’s never a quick fix to a problem that has been in the making for many years and the road ahead is anything but certain.
With a government in seemingly perpetual flux, and after a decade of government underfunding and overcomplicating the service, the planning system close to meltdown. That much is clear, from the experience of applicants who suffer uncertainties and delays, and of our colleagues in the public sector who deliver an essential public service under unacceptable work pressures.
This is a critical issue that needs to be resolved if we are to build more housing, deliver high quality regeneration and make better places.
The key question is: how will we improve things? How can we make the road ahead a little more certain?
If your work requires you to interact with the planning system, whether you are a developer, an officer or a consultant, what would you do to change things for the better?