A bold, fresh approach is needed to tackle the shortcomings of a system under so much strain that it is damaging the sector and wider economy, writes Alex Franklin
Last month’s announcement of a fresh inquiry into proposed government reforms to the UK’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) by MPs on the parliamentary levelling up, housing and communities committee is certainly welcome news.
The planning system has been feeling the strain for some time. It has come under a prolonged and intense period of scrutiny for several reasons, the most obvious and frustrating being the sheer amount of time it takes to go through the process.
This has contributed to a growing case backlog that is already damaging the building sector and holding back the UK economy.
The problem is illustrated by a concerning trend around the number of buildings being recorded as disused or derelict. Between 2019 and 2022, the total increased from 600,000 to 650,000, indicating a direction of travel that should be cause for concern for the government and sector stakeholders.
The issue is compounded by a feeling among peers that it is easier to reject planning applications than it is to approve them. Dialogue with officers at local planning authorities (LPAs) is not encouraged, while many working within LPAs appear to be uncontactable when in reality they are often faced with overwhelming workloads.
We have reached a point where acknowledging and highlighting problems is no longer useful. The government needs to be bold and consider a radical shake-up of how planning works
And, when applications are finally considered, although the system handles site-specific environmental considerations effectively – as it should – the same cannot be said in terms of the building’s technical design: the new Building Safety Act will only trigger technical review at gateway one for high-risk buildings.
Indeed, many professionals in the field feel a sense of frustration when they are assigned planning officers who do not have the required design or planning experience – a gap in technical competence that could result in permission being granted for designs that are flawed.
But we have reached a point where acknowledging and highlighting problems is no longer useful. Whatever the outcome of the committee’s findings, the government needs to be bold and consider a radical shake-up of how planning works.
To address the issues around backlogs and technical competence being spread so thin, there are, unfortunately, not a lot of obvious choices. Put simply, we can either look at dumbing down the planning process, making it shorter or simpler to meet the bar of being in the public’s interest, or add resources to improve the current system. Alternatively we could explore a whole new process.
A centralised pool of talent can build and maintain state-of-the-art, sector-specific expertise for technical consultation on major projects
Although finding extra resources to improve the current system is obviously desirable, it does not look like being achievable in the short term, especially given the well-documented financial and skills shortages. So a new approach is needed.
Instead of having planning experts dispersed geographically among LPAs, I believe the creation of a centralised pool of talent is needed. Over time, it can build and maintain state-of-the-art, sector-specific expertise for technical consultation on major projects.
Why would this work better? There are many LPAs that lack the the technical expertise to determine whether a design is missing an opportunity or has a technical shortcoming. A new, technically-centred body would ensure that all major projects are vetted on a like-for-like basis, regardless of where they are being proposed.
>> Also read: What is the Building the Future Commission?
This would remove inconsistencies in the system. Indeed, rather than represent something of a postcode lottery, a national body would be responsible for raising and maintaining long-term, state-of-the-art competency for key sectors such as housing and masterplanning, transport and aviation, healthcare, education and even larger retrofit that can advise on applications all over the country.
A sector-driven approach may help to retain competency in the longer term and save the need for ad-hoc design review boards which are eventually disbanded, losing all built-up knowledge in the process. CABE (now DesignCouncil CABE) is a case in point with HS2, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) and Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) coming down the track.
In practice, a centralised approach to vetting complex, major applications could either be delivered through the extension of arm’s length bodies (ALBs) that already exist or the planning inspectorate. Perhaps Homes England, for example, could have its remit added to for the technical vetting of major residential masterplans outside of London in England?
I would like to see the development of a site classification tool to aid planners and applicants alike from the start with an overview of the level of consultation detail that a site might statistically require
Or, as has been the case with the Health and Safety Executive, whose remit has been expanded under the Building Safety Act, the planning inspectorate could take centre-stage as the government agency for consulting on all major applications in addition to nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) which it already operates the planning process for.
To help pave the way for this, in our post-AI world, I would like to see the development of a site classification tool to aid planners and applicants alike from the start with an overview of the level of consultation detail that a site might statistically require. Quite often, an applicant and case officer will only start to understand the complexity of a site after prolonged discussions, and I believe we have the tools and data to ensure that all parties can allocate the right level of resources to improve productivity.
A site classification, akin to listed buildings or structures, would help frame all applications. Think of it as a sort of public transport accessibility level (PTAL) equivalent, one which for any grid location a LPA case officer and applicant can agree from the outset the level of complexity that a site is likely to require their pre-application and final application documentation to cover.
The ideas need to be explored in granular detail to see if they are workable and desirable
This would be linked to commensurate application fees, level of LPA technical competency, LPA design review and, in turn, the likely length of the determination period. Simpler grade threesites might be determined quickly; complex, layered and historic grade one sites might take longer than the current statutory period.
The above does not suggest that a centralised, sectorised planning consultee is necessarily a silver bullet solution to all the problems the system faces – the ideas need to be explored in granular detail to see if they are workable and desirable among the stakeholders involved in planning applications.
But the time has come to put forward and discuss actions that can unlock the potential of the UK’s building sector. This would place the industry on a better footing to meet challenge of responding to the climate emergency.
Alex Franklin is director of architecture at Basha-Franklin
Building the Future Commission
Coming up on the Building the Future commission:
In the coming weeks we will:
- Host our first regional roundtable with our partner Constructing Excellence in the East of England region in mid March
- Convene our first commissioner panel meeting at the end of March
- Interview two big hitters in the world of infrastructure for the infrastructure stream
- Examine whether the qualifications landscape needs to change and assess whether more flexibility is needed for our education and skills stream
- Investigate how for-profit affordable housing can deliver the homes we need for the housing and planning stream
- Assess a new model of procurement used by the Ministry of Defence for the project delivery and digital stream
- Look at models of flexible working in the industry for the workplace, culture and leadership stream
About the commission
The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment.
The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing culminate in a report published at the end of the year.
The commissioner include figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.
The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.
The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:
- Education and skills
- Housing and planning
- Building safety
- Project delivery and digital
- Workplace culture and leadership
- Creating communities
Building the Future will also undertake a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. It will also set up a young person’s advisory panel.
We will also be setting up an ideas hub and we want to hear your views.