"Look here, chaps. Our political masters are getting cross about the time it takes to process applications. I've promised them we will turn everything around in eight weeks. Don't make me a liar, eh?"
"Sir, that's impossible, isn't it?
"Nonsense, just think positive."
"But the only way we could possibly deal with all the submissions would be to refuse everything."
"Exactly. Off you go!"
"You can't be serious."
"Why not? The ODPM will see that we're dealing with the workload, and those applicants will simply have to wait a bit longer and try again."
"But what if the application is okay?"
"Just wait four weeks, tell the applicant that the site outline is the wrong shade of red and ask them to resubmit. That'll buy you four weeks. If they're still there after that, quote policy reference 42.11 subsection B – under no circumstance is any application to be considered unless it is identical to a consent that has already been granted – unless it is in a conservation area, in which case it has to be identical to two consents. If it involves listed buildings, demand full-size working drawings of all the internal and external joinery and then refuse it because it is detrimental to the setting of the other listed buildings in the borough. Oh, and don't forget: ring up the architects the day before the eight weeks runs out. This screws them up with their clients and makes it look incompetent. Am I a genius or what?"
Wild cheers all round.
Now, the reason that the planners can't process applications in eight weeks is because they don't have the resources. The reason they don't have the resources is because planning, like supermarket meat, is too cheap. An applicant applying for consent to provide four dwellings is charged £440. If consent is granted, the instant increase in land value might be £100,000. If it's 50 houses in a field, the increase in value could be £2m, but the application will only cost a thousand or two more.
Take another example: a private individual might request for consent to add a couple of thousand square feet on a £2m grade II-listed building. This will increase the value by £50,000, and might easily take 12 months. The fee payable to the council is £110 – about the same cost as printing the 11 sets of drawings. Yet once consent is granted, the same developer might easily find itself paying a fee of £2500 to Building Control for assessing exactly the same proposal. Building Control offers a much more professional service, but the added value is zero.
I’ve inherited dreadful applications that have been approved. Terrible schemes, incompetent drawings
So what do we get from our reasonably priced planners? Well, what we don't get is better architecture. In larger schemes, the planning emphasis is all on change of use rather than contribution to the built environment, so developers spend a fortune on barristers when they should be spending the money on the design. I have inherited some truly dreadful applications that have been approved. Terrible schemes, incompetent drawings.
The planning process has become so convoluted and time consuming it makes sense for developments to be bigger and bigger. One big application is going to be far cheaper to deal with than four small ones.
I have found myself having year-long battles about some modest alterations to the backs of two or three houses for different clients in the same non-listed terrace. Because they live near a conservation area, extraordinary obstacles are put in the applicants' path. Yet the whole terrace could be razed to the ground and nobody in the planning department would bat an eyelid.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.