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Dozens of councils could lose planning powers

Up to 40 councils would be at risk of having planning powers taken away for failing to take decisions on applications fast enough, under government proposals unveiled last week, analysis by Construction News sister title Local Government Chronicle has found.

The Treasury’s ‘productivity plan’ outlined proposals to “tighten” the existing planning performance regime so that any council which had failed to make at least 50 per cent of their decisions on time would be “at risk” of having their planning powers taken over by central government inspectors.

At present, councils can face intervention if they fail to decide 40 per cent of major planning decisions on time.

The productivity plan announced proposals to extend the performance regime to include minor planning applications.

The statutory time limit for major applications is 13 weeks, while a decision on minor applications should be made within eight weeks.

LGC’s analysis of Department for Communities & Local Government data on 2014/15’s planning decisions and the speed at which they were taken showed eight councils had failed to meet the 50 per cent threshold for both major and minor applications.

They were Blackburn with Darwen, Redditch, Test Valley, Wokingham, and Wyre BCs, Bromsgrove DC, Bromley LBC, and Sefton MBC.

A further 12 councils failed to take at least half of their decisions on major applications within the required time limit, while another 20 did not meet the 50 per cent threshold on minor applications.

David Hughes, who leads on planning at the District Councils’ Network and is also chief executive of Gravesham Borough Council, said: “The District Councils Network agrees with the need for strong planning performance, but district councils must be fully resourced to deliver local planning. 

“For this to happen, the government must address changes to the planning fees regime to enable cost recovery.”

As reported last week, the government plans to legislate so that brownfield sites identified on the proposed brownfield land register gain an “automatic permission in principle”.

Town and Country Planning Association chief executive Kate Henderson said: “The decision to give automatic planning permission to sites on brownfield land seriously undermines the ability for genuine place-making and risks creating the slums of the future.”

The Treasury’s document also set out proposals to allow the communities secretary to impose local plans on councils that fail to agree their own.

Local plans outline where development can take place in an area.

A deadline for when local plans should be in place will be confirmed “by summer recess”, according to the document.

League tables will also be produced showing councils’ progress.

Proposals to “significantly streamline” the process of getting local plans approved or amended will also be brought forward.

Mr Hughes said he approved of the move, but added: “It is vitally important, however, that district councils, which are close to communities and have built up years of experience and trust, remain in charge of local plans.

“District councils already prioritise brownfield land for housing wherever suitable living environments can be supported. 

“As such there are valid concerns that the central diktat implicit in this productivity plan could undermine the principles of localism – that local and neighbourhood plans are the best places for judging which brownfield sites should be used for housing.”

Other proposals around planning contained in the productivity plan include introducing a dispute resolution mechanism for section 106 agreements, while further plans to reform compulsory purchase orders are to be published in the autumn.

However, this “will not alter the principle of secretary of state sign-off”, the document said.

In London, the mayor is to be given the power to call in planning applications of 50 homes or more.

The threshold currently stands at 150 homes or more.

Proposals to remove the need for planning permission for “upwards extensions” limited to the height of the adjacent building are also to be brought forward.

However, planning permission would be required if neighbouring residents objected to a proposed extension.

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