David Bainbridge, a Partner at Bidwells, looks at some of the challenges within the planning system.
The Government has identified that the Planning System is one of the challenges in their objective to fix the broken housing market.
In the Housing White Paper, Fixing Our Broken Housing Market, published by the former Department for Communities and Local Government, one of the steps to fix the problem is to build homes faster with an aim to boost local authority capacity and capability to deliver, and improving the speed and quality with which planning cases are handled.
The Planning Delivery Fund announcement in February from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, included funding for increased capacity in plan-making, additional design resources and innovation in the planning process. There is likely to be a wide variation in the outcome of this funding depending on the measurements but it is generally held that whilst welcome, the funding is only part of the solution.
Even following the planning applications fees increase at the beginning of this year, many Local Planning Authorities are under-resourced and face mounting challenges in the context of increased regulation and scrutiny.
Against this backdrop those LPAs who positively embrace change and innovate should rightly be applauded.
Milton Keynes Council recently reported that its planning team had increased planning income by more than two thirds partially due to the use of Planning Performance Agreements as part of pre-application discussions.
PPAs have been in force for more than 10 years and their use has grown considerably recently with MHCLG reporting nearly 9,000 PPAs in 2016/17.
PPAs can provide certainty through obligations agreed by parties to the agreement, that is typically the LPA and Applicant, and can smooth passage through the planning process but only if sufficient resources are available otherwise they can be an expense with little additional benefit.
The consultation draft of the National Planning Policy Framework, expect to be published in final form in July, encourages pre-application engagement and front-loading of application discussions although it states this is voluntary and it stopped short of making this mandatory.
Some Local Planning Authorities provide commentary on planning application discussions in reports to planning committee and it can be frowned upon where discussions have not been held. Arguably this is less relevant where the recommendation is positive and more relevant where the recommendation is not positive.
Resources within planning departments is only part of the consideration because the planning process involves legal teams to draft planning obligations under S.106 agreements and wider consultees. Often the process is only as quick as the pace of its slowest part. It would be a brave and rare LPA who seeks to approve development without a fully resolved consultation response from the Highway Authority, which brings into question whether PPAs need to be agreed with wider stakeholders and their resources covered also.
There are areas where LPAs cannot levy fees for planning services such as engagement under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, Habitats Regulations and planning appeals. Whilst the planning process is a costly one, those engaging in the process might welcome a more comprehensive review of funding and fees if quality and speed can be improved.
The Government’s aim to boost local authority capacity and capability to deliver, in the context of the planning system, could readily translate into many service areas from Local Government and hence the call for ring-fencing of income where planning departments are net contributors to Councils’ budgets.
Overall, the use of Planning Performance Agreements and other innovative ways to improve performance in the planning system by all stakeholders should be reviewed and new measures put forward as part of the solutions to fix the broken housing market.
David Bainbridge, MRTPI, Partner, Planning at Bidwells, has 20 years’ planning experience. He has successfully delivered planning permission and land allocations for residential, industrial, leisure and mixed-use developments. David is a former Chair of the East Midlands Royal Town Planning Institute, having qualified in 1999.
For more information visit www.bidwells.co.uk