Fast tracking the planning process is one way to tackle the housing shortage - but are planning performance targets having the opposite effect?

Stephanie Canham

As I mentioned in my last blog, fast tracking the planning process is one way the government can help tackle the housing shortage and speed up development. But my planning colleagues tell me that current planning performance targets – which were intended to help do just this – are actually, in many cases, having the opposite effect.

The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 gave real teeth to the government’s ability to tackle under-performing local planning authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has the power to put local authorities that are considered to be determining planning applications too slowly into what amounts to the town and country planning equivalent of “special measures”. In special measures, developers are allowed to bypass the local planning authority and apply directly to the secretary of state for planning permission.

There is a suspicion that town halls are rather better at improving their statistics than they are at delivering an improved planning service

At the moment, in order to avoid special measures, local authorities are required to determine at least 30% of major applications within 13 weeks, unless the applicant has agreed an extension to that period in writing with the local authority. Special measures also become a risk if local authorities have more than 20% of their decisions overturned at appeal. DCLG is now proposing to increase the threshold to a 40% determination rate and will carry out a nationwide assessment against this target in November 2014.

Only one local authority has been put in special measures so far, and the government is patting itself on the back and declaring job done. The latest government stats claim that between October 2012 (when the draft legislation first went before parliament) and September 2013, the percentage of applications being determined on time improved from 57% to 69%. So planning performance targets work, right?

Not so fast. There is a suspicion that town halls are rather better at improving their statistics than they are at delivering an improved planning service. The DCLG target is only to “determine” applications on time. That target will be met whether applications are approved or refused, regardless of the merits of the decisions. More and more examples are surfacing where the statutory time periods are dictating the planning process, and where refusal notices are being issued on the basis that the statutory time period has expired: clearly not a justification for refusing an application, nor one that achieves the aim of seeing development delivered on the ground. It is clear that this type of determination does not meet Government objectives - in fact, it delays developments, raises costs all round, and increases the red tape the government is trying to avoid.

The government must give more thought to further tweaking planning performance targets to both encourage and measure the swiftness and the quality of decision making. Delivery of new developments depends on it.

Stephanie Canham is national head of projects and construction at law firm Trowers & Hamlins