If the government is to effectively revamp the country’s planning system and ease housing pressures, it must acknowledge that any serious solution should have local authorities at its core

Richard McCarthy

You can’t have missed the headlines: steep declines in the number of major planning applications, longer waits for decisions and complaints of underfunding from local planning authorities. The performance of Britain’s planning system was laid bare this month with the Annual Planning Survey from the British Property Federation and recent Capita acquisition GL Hearn. It certainly hit a raw nerve. But looking behind the headlines, there is a great opportunity to take stock of issues facing planners and developers. The report sets out clear challenges, not only to central and local government but also to business and the construction industry. Now in its fourth year, the GL Hearn report describes a “planning system on the brink”.

Half of planning authorities surveyed said they believed the current planning environment is not operating as well as it was five years ago. A number of cities across England are now taking well over six months to determine major new applications.

So what needs to be done to ensure we avoid worsening headlines over the next five years and meet Britain’s housing and development needs?

Central government has done much to simplify the planning system, with the National Planning Policy Framework, review of planning guidance and the Localism Act. These changes have laid down the gauntlet for local authorities to deliver the new system, which some are finding difficult to do. It now seems it is time to turn up the heat with the new housing and planning bill that will allow Whitehall to force plans on local authorities, at the same time as relaxing rules for brownfield developments. The extension of the permitted development powers to convert and now replace underused commercial buildings for new housing will also have an impact.

Together, central and local government need to deliver a greater degree of certainty and simplicity in the system

But government also needs to consider the revelation that two-thirds of applicants would be happy to pay more for a better service, with guaranteed shorter determination times. This is a great opportunity for government to address planning fees across the board by allowing higher fees and a more balanced fee structure, so that the cost of a good planning service is met by its users and sufficient resources can be invested in the system. There is also an opportunity for planning performance agreements (PPA) to be redesigned to allow developers and councils to agree on an appropriate sum to cover the cost of major planning applications in a transparent manner.

But any serious solution to current housing and development pressures must have local authorities at its heart. The responsibility can’t lie with Whitehall alone. It is evident from the survey and reaction to it that at least some local authorities are starting to face up to the challenge, and are coming up with innovative ways to increase efficiency and improve their service. There is also a renewed recognition by some of them of the need to attract the right people with the right skills into the planning system - and ensure they are given a reason to stay. Another option would be for councils to consider the opportunity to outsource elements of the development control caseload, particularly small-scale domestic applications, which could free up the case officers to turn their attention to major applications. Camden council in London was cited by the British Property Federation as an example where good work has been done to review their planning system from the ground up with the resultant improvement in performance.

Together, central and local government need to deliver a greater degree of certainty and simplicity in the system. Clear guidance needs to be set by government and adhered to by planning authorities on complex developments, the mix of affordable housing, development rights and section 106 agreements so developers can have confidence in the system to get planning. Moves are already being made in this direction. For example, we now know the Department for Communities and Local Government will be reviewing the Community Infrastructure Levy, a well placed proposition, developed in direct response to the feedback from housebuilders, that is struggling to deliver the range of intended benefits and impacts.

But there is also a crucial role here for the industry and for developers. The industry has an opportunity now to set out its concerns, and it needs to be clear on its position. Developers should provide a strong voice about their needs from the planning system and what they will offer in return. Businesses in general need to send a message to government about the issues they face and how they could be overcome. Why not spell out exactly what service levels are expected, and how much you’re prepared to pay for it?

While the economy recovers, there is a danger of planning and development being left behind. Worse may yet be to come, with further budget pressures expected. We all need to get planning now, and fast, if we are to meet the country’s urgent housing and development needs. Everyone has a role to play - we need to get Britain planning.

Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government at Capita