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You want how much?

You want how much?

Dan Di-Lieto 16 Jan 2019
Looking at the pre-application process, it remains an element of the planning system which offers a veritable plethora of approaches and outcomes. As with most things in life the first thing to consider is cost - below is a sequence of amounts for your consideration: a. £n/ b. £0 c. £1,000 d. £4,800 e. £8,000 f. £12,000   There is no mathematical puzzle or formula to be solved here, just a head scratcher of a different sort. These figures are the different charges by a selection of local planning authorities (LPAs) to attend one pre-app meeting and provide a single written response for a “strategic development” (usually defined as 150+ residential units and/or 5,000sqm+ of other uses). Setting aside the frankly eye-watering cost of (f), it is the vast divergent cost of engaging with LPAs at the pre-application stage that is most striking. It is unlikely to be a surprise to hear that (f) is charged by one council in London. What may be more surprising is that both (a) and (b) are in the West Midlands. LPA (b) offers a free pre-application advice service as a means of attracting prospective investors and to encourage engagement between developers and council officers at the earliest stage, to try and ensure that the planning process runs smoothly. This is in stark contrast to (a), where the LPA recently stopped providing a pre-application advice service altogether, due to a lack of resources. The differences between all of these charges raise a question about how they are derived by LPAs. There is obviously a balancing act to be struck between providing a service that helps speed up the planning process, whilst also recouping sufficient fees to ensure that the resources required for pre-application work do not have a diversionary impact on the ability to determine applications. Everyone in the development sector is aware of the under-resourcing in planning departments and it is difficult to begrudge a LPA which charges a higher amount particularly when it provides a valuable service (unlike monies collected from speed cameras and parking tickets!). However, when this is viewed through the prism of LPAs that are willing and/or able to offer a similar service for free, it gives credence to the argument that in the planning system not all schemes are created equal. This inconsistency is further magnified by the often varying quality of pre-application responses received. Clients are loathe to pay high fees time after time, when they don’t receive much face time with LPAs and have previously received a poor written response which merely cites relevant policy without offering a “real” assessment of the proposals presented to them, or when positive discussions at a meeting aren’t translated into written advice. This is a particularly tough balance for officers to strike, as they are often keen to be positive but then don’t want to include any hostages to fortune in responses which may cause problems further down the line. However, in more cases than most, it leads to the same response from clients: “What value are we getting for our money?”. The other matter to be considered in the pre-application process is one of time. Given the ongoing debate about housing delivery, it is perhaps surprising that scrutiny rarely looks at the timescales involved in the pre-application process. As with the scale of pre-application charges, there are no regulations governing timescales for pre-application engagement responses. Whilst LPAs often provide indicative timescales on their websites for how long the process can take - generally one month from submission to a meeting being held and another month for the issue of a written response - such timescales are rarely kept to and there is little or no accountability for doing so. For example, on a recent project the client had to wait for over three months from the date of the meeting to receiving a written response. Such delays often have a significant impact on the delivery of development, as developers generally have to avoid committing fees and resources to projects until they receive a positive written response from the LPA. But just to add, having paid £12,000 to LPA (f), the council’s response was received very promptly! Whilst we should be loathe to add another layer of bureaucracy to the planning system, considering the above issues together, it is apparent uniformity - ought to be applied to the pre-application process. Here are some suggestions for how it could be improved: Include pre-application fee guidance (as with application fees) in the NPPG, calculated on the scale and use of proposed developments. These could be maximum figures, so that LPAs not wanting to charge full amounts could apply lower charges; Allow a portion of pre-application fees paid to be deducted from application fees and/or planning performance agreements (PPAs) for major planning applications. This would encourage developers to engage more thoroughly at the pre-application stage, in the knowledge that the fees they pay aren’t being “wasted”; MHCLG should provide a template for written pre-application responses (akin to a decision notice) so that they are consistent in format and can provide more certainty; and, The new regulations should set out standardised “determination periods” for providing pre-application responses which are linked to the scale of proposals and/or extent of pre-application submission documents. The specified time periods would be devised to acknowledge that for some major schemes, inputs are often required from various technical officers at LPAs. It is obvious that some of the suggested pre-application changes outlined above may not be feasible, given the current status of resourcing at many LPAs. However, if the planning process is to be sped up to improve the rate at which schemes are being delivered all stages of the system need to be explored and refined. Image credit: Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

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The Wheel of Blame spins round on Britain’s house-building crisis
At the start of every year the internet tends to be ablaze with new and exciting trends to look out for. When it comes to addressing the house building crisis you will struggle to find anyone who will tell you anything new or exciting about its causes - it is an ever-spinning wheel of blame. Whether the blame lands on the government, local authorities, the planning system or house builders depends on your view point and the phase of the moon in the political calendar. Judging by recent articles online, the wheel of blame has landed firmly back on house builders who, depending on where you find your news, are sitting on sites for between 450,000 and 600,000 potential homes in unimplemented planning permissions. I have always found this criticism peculiar, partly as a result of my experience working with house builders (I have yet to meet one who doesn’t want planning  permission and to start on site a.s.a.p.) and also because it defies the simple logic that house builders primarily make money from building and selling houses. Ultimately, housebuilders can only build at the rate a local market will support. Ignoring the debate about numbers and the methodology involved in calculating unimplemented permissions - which my colleague Joe Sarling has some strong views on - and the “use-it-or-lose-it” suggestion which politicians trot out every now and again (keep an eye out for it in the run-up to the London Mayoral elections), it seems sensible to take a step back and consider the causes of the backlog. Recent research published by the Local Government Association (LGA) posits that the planning system is not a barrier to house building, citing the disparity between permissions being granted and houses being built, pointing instead to the lack of skills and its impact on recruitment in the construction industry. This approach ignores the fact that the granting of planning permission on a site does not immediately equate to new homes and in reality, it is far from it. The issuing of planning permission is rarely the start line for the building process, but rather the beginning of the marathon of discharging pre-commencement conditions. Whilst I would never describe the planning system as a barrier, I am in agreement with the Home Builders Federation who, whilst acknowledging improvements in the planning system, consider it to be “too slow, bureaucratic and expensive”. In my experience in planning to date, the underlying issue is always ‘time’. Time is money and, in the words of Bob Dylan, “money doesn’t talk, it swears”.  Local authorities (LAs) never seem to have enough time or resources to dedicate to the application in hand and this means more time lost and fees incurred by house builders before they can build new homes. The impacts of budget cuts on planning departments are trickling down to the earliest stages of applications, with the timescales involved in acknowledging, validating and assigning cases seemingly ever-expanding. The most recent example of this was outlined in an email from a London Borough asking that applicants follow the Borough’s file naming conventions, or face the validation process being delayed by as much as 2 weeks. If such a minor issue can delay the issuing of permission for what is essentially almost one sixth of the determination period of a major housing application, what hope do developers have in securing timely permissions? To borrow imagery from “Come Fly With Me”, the lack of resources in some authorities has meant the planning process, at times, resembles flying with a low budget airline. A prospective developer has to pay a premium - through enhanced pre-application services and entering into a planning performance agreement (PPA) to receive a service that was previously provided, or that is still being provided free of charge by less cash-strapped, under-resourced authorities. This is not a dig at planning authorities but an acknowledgement of the challenges they are facing with limited resources and an increasing number of planning applications. In this regard I’m very much in agreement with the recent recommendations of Sheffield University’s Dr Sarah Payne, particularly her suggestion that the number of LA planners should be proportionate to the housing need set out in the local plan. Despite the various difficulties faced by all groups involved, the wheel of blame keeps spinning round and it is the constant shifting of blame that impacts on the delivery of housing just as much as any of the smaller issues. The rhetoric recently used by Cllr Peter Box (LGA housing spokesman) is just one example of this: “…councils must have the power to invest in building new homes and to force developers to build homes more quickly”. In an environment where politicians, LAs, house builders and the general public all (hopefully) want the same thing, it seems peculiar that any one group should want to force the other to build homes. It is this absence of collaboration and compromise which is as much a cause of the housing crisis as a symptom of it. I won’t pretend that I have a silver bullet for solving the housing crisis, and one shouldn’t believe any mayoral candidate that claims they do either, but my best experiences in residential planning have come when the various groups involved have been willing to work together on the basis of each other’s relative responsibilities and restrictions. For planning officers this means an appreciation of the economics and commercial requirements behind development proposals, for committee members an ability to look beyond the local impact of a scheme, and for house builders a recognition that LAs are under-resourced and require additional funding (through PPAs), which isn’t forthcoming from central government, to process larger or more complex applications. My utopian planning system is unlikely to ever come to fruition so, in the meantime, I would settle for all involved to step away from the wheel of blame and to start to work together proactively and collaboratively.  

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