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It's time to privatise the planning system

The government has unveiled new proposals to reform planning laws, including speeding up the rate at which planning applications are processed.

It was a timely announcement, given the latest figures showing another fall in housebuilding.

The Queen’s Speech may have contained ambitious proposals to build 200,000 starter homes, but decade-long trends show successive administrations have never got near building these sorts of numbers. In fact, we’re building only half the number of homes we need.

One of the biggest factors constraining development is our antiquated planning regime, despite recent changes via the National Planning Framework. 

The system is still fiendishly complicated, with more than 50 acts of parliament covering planning making progress achingly slow.

Much criticism of planning law has centred on getting projects off the ground – the strict restrictions in releasing green belt, for example. 

However, it often takes years for permission to be granted for brownfield sites too, because local authority planning departments have become seriously overstretched as a result of austerity cuts.

Council cuts bite

The Planning Officers Society has said officials are working much longer hours, with councils having lost around a quarter of their staff since in 2010.

According to an NAO report last November, spending on planning services fell 46 per cent between 2010/11 and 2014/15.  

As a result, the percentage of minor planning applications processed within eight weeks fell from 75 per cent in 2010/11 to 70 per cent in 2013/14, despite a 3 per cent fall in applications, while other applications fell from 86 per cent to 83 per cent, despite 4 per cent fewer applications. 

“Now is the time to look at taking these sorts of models one step further”

A fall in the number of approvals for larger schemes translates to major housebuilding delays. 

Given the reduction in departmental capability across local authorities, the capacity to focus on larger applications – such as permission to build on brownfield sites – is greatly reduced. 

Developers often feel the process is a lottery, with little certainty over timeframes.

Local innovation

Some local authorities are taking a radical approach.

Westminster City Council, for example, has three staff directly paid for by developers to speed up reserved matters applications.

There has also been some imaginative use of local development orders, which pre-grant permission for specific types of development: Aylesbury Vale District Council has pioneered their use for householder developments, meaning the process takes up to two weeks rather than eight. 

Now is the time to look at taking these sorts of models one step further by privatising parts of the planning process.

This wouldn’t be an entirely new concept for local authority functions in the property arena; the approved inspector role was privatised for Building Regulations, so the same could happen for the planning process right up to committee stage.  

The private sector would carry out procedural functions – processing applications, putting noticeboards up around sites, writing notes for the planning committee and setting out the positions available to applicants.

This would leave 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 tandem with this, permitted development rights (such as those which already cover the likes of dormer windows and loft extensions) should be extended, increasing the scale and extent of applications that no longer need formal consent.

Financing the building of more homes is only one half of the solution to the housing crisis.

Unless the planning process is streamlined, we will never achieve the government’s targets.

Mark Leeson is director of design at McBains Cooper

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