Tony Dowse: Tired of waiting

Tony Dowse, Chairman of Environ Communities, worries that new legislation aimed at speeding up the planning process may have the opposite effect June 3, 2016 / Isla MacFarlane
Tony Dowse: Tired of waiting

In last month’s speech, the Queen announced several new planning rules which could impact housing developers in the UK. This new legislation hopes to ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary, to help the government achieve their goal of building one million new homes.
The proposed bill includes measures to reform and speed up the planning process by minimising delays caused by pre-commencement conditions, so that these conditions will be imposed only where they are needed. Also included is the streamlining of processes intended to help neighbourhoods come together to agree on plans for where things get built in their local area. There is often a lack of proper communication between planners and developers. The pre-application process where developers have to pay for a consultation is a negative process that simply takes far too long.

Although the concept of Neighbourhood Planning is a good one, it inevitably slows up the planning process with the degree of consultation that is required. Anything that streamlines this has to be beneficial. There are other improvements that could be made, such as properly staffing planning departments and the avoidance of part time officers who cause havoc with the progression of any application, and the recognition that developers paying an application fee deserve a proper, efficient service. Many developers fail to register a complaint for fear of repercussions in terms of a planning refusal, and accountability is sadly lacking.

It is a laudable intention of the government’s to speed up the planning process, which has been responsible for the shortage of houses being built in the UK. I’m delighted that the government are examining this area of house building, as currently the length of time it takes to get a development through local planning is abysmal – it takes an eternity and the entire system needs reform! One of the reasons the country faces a shortage in quality housing stock is due to these restrictions, so any easing of them will be of benefit.

However, minimising pre-commencement conditions will simply mean that developers have to provide more information and go through more hoops before a consent is actually issued. As such, the proposal will not speed up the planning process in reality.

For all the positive comment, it’s not possible to simply pick up the numbers in an instant. It’s a bit like getting an oil tanker up to speed. The planning system will continue to delay development as there are still a number of constraints, such as the need for specialist reports in order for an application to be validated. It’s not just the initial consent, as the satisfaction of conditions can cause considerable delays to a start on site. Some of the provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill and last year’s Autumn Statement would appear positive, but there remains so much uncertainty, particularly the confusion over whether or not small developments will continue being exempt from including affordable homes. The last thing we need is uncertainty, and different interpretation of the rules in different areas raising the risk profile.

The attitude of planners so often means they are there to block development rather than facilitate development – such as housing that is clearly needed. We need an end to this and a new spirit of cooperation in order to get the best result for everybody.

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