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Planning matters

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Decisions, decisions!

Decisions, decisions!

Chris Smith 31 Aug 2018

The pressing need to build more new homes has gained significant traction in recent years and it is identified now as a national crisis. After featuring prominently in the 2017 political manifestos, Prime Minister Theresa May has identified that the number one domestic priority is to increase the rate of house building to 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020’s[1].

Delays in house building are often blamed on the planning system and, more recently, accusations of land banking have surfaced frequently in the media. In response, an independent review – led by Sir Oliver Letwin – was commissioned “to tackle barriers to building”. 

Much of the attention has concentrated on trying to understand the reasons for delays after development proposals have been approved, however there has been little said about the trials and tribulations of reaching this position. It is very rarely straightforward and the determination process can be frustrating when there do not appear to be any outstanding concerns, yet an application is refused by members against an officer recommendation for approval.

At the Planning for Housing Conference on 4 October 2017[2], a local council leader told a conference seminar that planning committee members rely on the advice of officers “nine times out of ten times” and that members are “rarely party political and tend to make decisions more on the basis of geographical or local knowledge”. In our experience, these statements perhaps underestimate just how often this occurs - particularly with applications for major developments.

The examples of two planning appeals in recent years for sites in the North East can be cited, which followed applications that had been refused by members contrary to officer recommendations. As both appeals were subsequently allowed, the obvious questions were (a) whether the appeals could have been avoided and (b) how much time and cost (for both sides) having to go to appeal had added to the process. Time and money are particularly relevant, when there is a clear need to speed up the rate of building new homes.

At the time of submitting a planning application for a major development proposal, applicants can (in theory!) expect to receive a decision within the statutory 13 weeks. Where a planning application takes longer than the statutory period to decide, the Government’s ‘planning guarantee’ states that a decision should be made within 26 weeks and that “no application should spend more than a year with decision makers, including any appeal”[3]. To put this into the context of these two appeals, one complied with the ‘planning guarantee’ however the time from submission of the planning application to receiving the appeal decision for the second case extended well beyond the Government’s policy at 23 months. 

These timings do not actually tell the full story as for each scheme an earlier planning application had been refused; new applications had been submitted and the development proposals considered at appeal represented revised proposals. Following the refusal of the earlier applications, in each case the applicant had sought to address the issues raised locally and used the appeal process only as a last resort.

Therefore in these examples, the true length of time it has taken to achieve planning permission for each site, from submission of the earlier planning applications to receiving the appeal decisions for the revised schemes, is 34 months and 42 months respectively.

Lichfields’ Refusal for Good Reason, published last week, looks into the subject of members’ decisions against officer recommendations, to understand whether this is a common occurrence and to assess whether there is any issue with the quality of decision making.

The research considered all appeals in 2017 for proposals of 50 homes or more. 78 out of the total 309 appeals (25%), as shown above, related to applications that had been refused against an officer recommendation for approval. 65% of these 78 appeals were allowed and, as a result, around 6,000 new homes could be delivered. In comparison, 40% of appeals were allowed in instances of officer-recommended refusal of planning permission.

The research findings indicate that the percentage of allowed appeals (for applications refused against officer recommendation) is generally higher when the reasons for refusal relate to technical matters compared to appeals where the main issues are more subjective.

Lichfields’ research also considered the time that an appeal can add on to the end-to-end housing development process. Of the 78 appeals considered, the average time from receiving a decision notice to the determination of an appeal was 11 months; however, this time period varies between 4 and 19 months. As shown below, the time period increases with the number of new dwellings proposed. For developments of less than 150 new homes, the average time from decision notice to appeal decision was 10 months; however, this increases to 13 months for developments of 150 houses or more. Generally, it is therefore reasonable to assume that an appeal is likely to add a year on to development timescales.

So, in answering the questions posed above:

  1. Could the appeals have been avoided? It is important to remember that an officer recommendation is just that – planning committee members are fully within their rights to decide otherwise. Members should however ensure that their reasons for refusal are substantiated and within the legal and policy framework. Lichfields’ research found that the prospects of success at appeal are greater if an application has planning officer support and particularly if the member-disputed factors relate to technical matters. In contrast, the appeal outcome is more varied when the main issues are subjective ones, indicating that members can be justified in disagreeing with their officers’ recommendations in some instances.

  2. What time and cost do appeals add onto the process? It is clear that an appeal is costly for both sides and can add around a year to the development process. Many decisions going against officer recommendations will however go unchallenged therefore ensuring high quality decision making by councillors is a vital component in tackling the housing crisis.

Lichfields’ research concludes with a series of recommendations to improve the quality of decision making which include:

  • Requiring councils to seek independent advice where there is disagreement between the planning officer and members on a technical issue
  • Allowing a ‘cooling off’ period for planning committee members to seek impartial advice about the prospects of defending their decision at appeal, when they are inclined to go against an officer’s recommendation.
  • Requiring local planning authorities to publish statistics on decision making, to allow applicants to understand the likely need for an appeal.
  • Reviewing the training given to planning committee members, which is not currently mandatory.

[1] Autumn Budget 2017 – Building the homes the country needs:
[2] Planning Resource article: Planning committees in line with officers 'nine out of ten times (4 October 2017):[3] Planning Practice Guidance (Determining a planning application) Paragraph: 001 Reference ID: 21b-001-20140306 and paragraph: 002 Reference ID: 21b-002-20140306:


PlayStation Consultation

PlayStation Consultation

Mark Kilgallon 15 Aug 2018
Like most of Generation Y (known as so called “Millennials”) I grew up playing computer games on the family’s first home computer. The top three most played games were Microsoft Flight Simulator, Theme Hospital and SimCity. Days of my life would be spent trying to land a 737 in a storm, trying to build a working hospital that catered for make believe diseases such as “King Complex” (when a patient thought they were Elvis) or trying to meet the needs of a growing city by building more parks, more roads or more police stations.

It’s perhaps the latter that still resonates most, because of working for Lichfields. Cities are fast becoming our new natural habitat, with over 54% of the world population now living in urban areas. In June this year, the BBC reported that UK cities are in the middle of an urban renaissance, with a shift towards people returning to city living.   

SimCity as I knew it lives on various forms, but a new game has risen to replace it.

Cities: Skylines is the spiritual successor to SimCity in that, at its heart, it’s a game for those who find the notation of cities as systems. Like any system, each component must be properly maintained and understood in order to create stability, and a very enjoyable and hugely interesting experience. The game then inevitably tests the player’s ability to maintain order, by creating disorder and forces to react to, to solve a problem and maintain the system’s stability.

While obviously first and foremost a computer game (with goals, missions, tasks etc), the real power of the game lies with the worldbuilding toolkit the game’s development team has created.  The developers’ goal was to create a games engine that had the ability to simulate various components of a city with a high degree of accuracy. This starts with the detail.

Users can customise everything from trees, road markings, the location of utilities and what style the buildings are, their materials etc. The game’s simulation engine can not only generate realistic traffic on roads, but also simulate the effects of congestion on the road network depending on how a player lays the roads out, what signs they use / don’t use and how a crash can have a knock-on effect across the whole road network. The engine can also simulate close to 1 million unique individuals’ daily routines. So out of that generated traffic, at any one time a certain percentage of cars will be on the school run, another percentage of trucks will be delivering items or returning to the depot etc. Other game aspects include water treatment facilities, zoning, parks, services, education, tourism and transport infrastructure.

I am willing to bet that of the 54% of the world’s population who live in large urban areas, many would love to have the tools and ability to change the areas they live in and how they would interact daily.

In 2016, the local government of the Finnish city of Hämeenlinna used the game’s worldbuilding toolkit to give people the chance to shape their city and at the same time, help to crowd source their urban planning and policy making. While drafting their new inner-city master plan, the local government held a design competition (with the prize being a couple of Iron Maiden tickets, who would be playing in the same area as the proposed development) to generate crowd sourced input into emerging transport, trade and service network structure issues.

One of the unique tools that the game offers is the ability to use real world geographic data as a starting point, so contestants in Finland could download the actual topography of the area to use in the development of their design. The final designs were judged on the novelty value and originality of the design, as well as the feasibility of the plan.

In what could be a first for local government, the unique way they considered using the game’s tools in their urban planning could not only signal a change in how other local governments could become more open and seek public participation in the development of their towns and cities, but it could also become a new way to conduct public consultation. For example, a council might want to build a new road. Not only could members of the public see the proposal for a new road and how it would look within the proposed local area, they could also see how it would work and look, with realistic traffic flows.

In another example, the video below shows how one user has taken it upon himself to re-create London as accurately as possible. This can be accomplished not only including the real world geographic data to accurately re-create the topography of the area, but also by overlay mapping allowing them to accurately plot roads, rivers, building locations etc. Then it’s just a matter of adding a few bells and whistles such as trees, fences, traffic lights, road markings and the odd post and phone box for good measure.

Various forums have also started to pop up that are tied to the game, in which game users seek the advice from urban planning and development professionals in order to create better cities.

The toolkit that the game provides could allow planning consultants, architects or even the public to quickly visualise how a scheme could look, using real world geographic data as a starting point. It is by no means as accurate as architectural software but what makes the game’s worldbuilding capability special is that it can give users / viewers the ability to create and experience realistic locations, by crafting out a little bit of realism. The game’s developers have also noted that they are seeing more real world uses for the game, with some urban planners themselves using it as a sketching tool.

However no-one needs a degree or years of experience to achieve this because at the end of the day the toolkit is part of a computer game, and so has all the intuitive features native to gaming that people who have been brought up using for decades. It’s not a big leap to imagine public consultations having a PlayStation or PC set up with a large TV showing a pre-programmed “virtual tour” around a site, or allowing users to navigate around a scheme via a game controller. 

The bigger picture to this blog is that as the percentage of us living in large urban areas continues to grow, we will need to come up with more creative solutions for how to accommodate the growing urban population. In some respects, those same people could become masters of their own fates by being able to have a hand in how their urban environment should develop and evolve. Technology will inevitably always bring new and more creative solutions for addressing urban problems. So perhaps something that began life as a computer game may one day help us build better places to live.