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Are cuts putting planning on the brink?

19 October 2015 Author: Dr Michael Harris

Another week, another report pointing to the under-resourcing of local planning authorities.

Last week’s annual British Property Federation (BPF) and GL Hearn planning survey pointed to a “planning system on the brink”. According to the survey, half of all local planning authorities think that the environment for planning has got worse or much worse since 2010, and more than half think that under-resourcing will present a significant challenge to delivery over the next year.

The BPF/GL Hearn survey follows our own research published the previous week, Investing in Delivery, commissioned by RTPI North West and conducted by Arup, on resourcing in planning authorities in the North West of England, and also RTPI Scotland’s analysis of the resourcing north of the border.

The RTPI North West research identified significant reductions in local planning authority budgets and staffing since 2010, with a third fewer planning staff overall, including a decrease on average of 37 per cent in planning policy staff and 27 per cent in development management staff. RTPI Scotland’s analysis pointed to a 20% reduction in planning department staff in Scotland since 2010.

Where the reports differ somewhat is in their scope, depiction of current performance, and in what we should do about it.

The BPF/GL Hearn survey bills itself as the “largest independent assessment of the planning system in the UK”, though it focuses on major planning applications in Greater London, Greater Manchester and Bristol and surrounding area during 2014 - 15, alongside a survey of local planning authorities and applicants in England. The RTPI’s North West research goes more in-depth in just one region (obviously the subject of much debate in the context of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’), and alongside a survey of local authorities also included focus groups and interviews with planners, decisions-makers, developers and consultancies.

Both reports however add to the mounting evidence of the pressures facing local authority planning departments, following earlier analyses from the National Audit Office and the Local Government association, among others.

The danger now is that further reductions in budgets could exacerbate a cycle of decline in more authorities, so further impacting on delivery and development.

The BPF/GL Hearn survey suggests that submission to determination times for major planning applications “continue to lengthen”. Our North West research records that the time taken to determine applications in many authorities is often still good, but notes that there are increasingly delays and uncertainty in pre-application advice, S106 agreements and the discharge of conditions. Our research also noted that a lack of proactive plan-making due to cuts is likely to result in fewer projects coming forward – in other words, it’s not just about the time taken to process applications, it’s also about the capacity of local authorities to set out plans for their areas that can set the context for development and provide greater certainty for developers. In many places, local planning services are surviving on the goodwill and professional integrity of the officers, but that this may not be sustainable.

Overall the conclusion is the same though: cuts in local planning are resulting in delays bringing forward development, and undermining central government’s ambitions for the delivery of housing and economic growth more broadly. The danger now is that further reductions in budgets could exacerbate a cycle of decline in more authorities, so further impacting on delivery and development.

So, what to do about it?

The BPF/GL Hearn survey indicates that 65% of applicants surveyed said they would be happy to pay a more to guarantee shorter determination times. The report suggests that increasing fees could take two forms – a compulsory fee increase across the board or the ability for applicants to select a ‘higher fee express service’. Our North West research didn’t find much support for local planning authorities being able to set their own application fees, though this debate looks set to continue, with reports that the Government is set to review the Community Infrastructure Levy and is considering making changes to planning fees as part of its Spending Review. For the moment, we argued that local authorities should strive to reinvest in their planning services, in the recognition that these services are an increasingly significant source of income for authorities through application fees and the New Homes Bonus, as well as a strong planning function being critical to future development and growth.

One (significant) note on language though. The BPF/GL Hearn survey repeatedly refers to developers’ increased dissatisfaction with “the planning system” as a barrier to development, but this one term actually covers (or serves to distract from) a multitude of issues. There are a range of reasons why development might be stifled, including struggling local authorities but also in some areas resistance to new development among the public and local policymakers, and as we’ve pointed out before, market structure and the lack of capacity in the development industry.

Also this week, the Federation of Master Builders realised its State of Trade Survey for Q3 2015, which revealed that 60% of small construction firms are struggling to hire bricklayers and 54% of firms are struggling to hire carpenters and joiners. This helps to explain some of the difference between permissions and completions; for example, in 2014 alone approved applications for residential units in England were over 100,000 greater than completed homes across the whole of the UK. The current focus on ‘planning reform’ also neglects the range of views in the development community, not all of whom want to see even more change to ‘the system’, but would prefer properly-funded local authority planning and greater certainty.

What we can agree on is that, as the BPF/GL Hearn survey concludes, “Planning in England is at a crux point”.

As we argued in our North West research, we now face a choice between further exacerbating a cycle of decline in more local planning authorities, or establishing a positive cycle of reinvestment in public sector planning in order to drive housing delivery and development. With the recently announced ‘devolution’ of business rates, and possibly more local freedoms to raise revenue to come, we need to continue to make the positive argument that local authorities should see investing in a strong planning department as a way of bringing revenue into their areas and improving local finances, as well of course as delivering better places.

 

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI