Variations in planning permission practices between local authorities make it difficult to predict how long the planning application process will take. How can we improve visibility?

If you are perplexed by recent Local Government Association (LGA) claims of house builders deliberately delaying work, you are not alone.

The LGA has suggested there is a total of 475,647 UK homes waiting to be built on land with planning permission in place.

However, the land bank figure includes homes on large sites where building is already underway and others where there is only outline consent so it is not yet legal for building to commence.

In 2013, the HBF conducted a survey of 2,300 land bank sites with around 220,000 plots in total. Of the sites surveyed:

63% of plots were already under construction
26% had outline consent
5% were awaiting discharge planning
4% were awaiting start on site
2% were non-viable.

So land banking is something of a red herring; in most cases, the drive is to build and sell homes as efficiently as possible, maximising profit margins.

Indeed, a report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Research points to the planning process itself as a major cause of building delays.

The report found variable planning permission outcomes even among very similar local authorities, noting variation across the UK in both the speed of decisions and the refusal rate of applications.

PLANNING PERMISSION DELAYS AND LACK OF VISIBILITY

The lack of planning outcomes data makes it even more difficult to predict how long the planning process will take in a given area.

Latest figures show 79% of major application decisions across the UK were on time between July and September 2015. Readily available data, however, only shows how many applications get completed within the target 13-week period, rather than the length of applications exceeding this deadline. So this points to a visibility problem in official data sources.

A further problem is the huge variation among local government authorities, with the worst performing area, Bromsgrove, settling just 38.8% of planning permissions on time.

Another visibility issue is the availability of the local authority weekly list. This is required by law to allow for public comment on new planning applications.

The City of Edinburgh Council, for example, has acknowledged significant delays to its weekly list. In some instances, planning applications appear so late that there is not enough time for public comment. The Council is now urging the public to sign up for automatic updates so as not to miss new planning applications. This only emphasises just how stretched local authorities have become.

PLANNING PERMISSION IMPROVEMENTS

In July 2015, the UK government launched a new productivity plan. Part of this plan focuses on building more homes:
‘The UK has long been incapable of building enough homes to keep up with growing demand.’ Sajid Javid, MP, 2015.

To be successful, there needs to be a relaxation of planning restrictions as well as a significant reduction in the time it takes local authorities to make planning decisions.

While the end goal is for 100% of planning application decisions to be made within 13 weeks, the government currently set the bar at just 50%.

Local authorities are yet to experience the anticipated surge in planning applications. Throughout the UK, there were 120,400 planning applications between July and September 2015: an increase of just 1% from the same quarter in 2014.

With local authorities already under strain, how will they cope with an increase in planning applications in the years to come? As it stands, there is much work to be done before local authorities can make discernible improvements to the speed of their planning permission processes. The lack of visibility exacerbates this problem.

So at least for now, house builders should continue to account for potential planning permission delays to new building projects, factoring increased time and cost into your risk management.

TAKEAWAYS:

  • The Local Government Association suggests there are 475,647 homes waiting to be built ? however the vast majority are likely on sites where building is already underway.
  • Latest figures show 79% of major planning permission decisions were made on time between July and September 2015.
  • There is wide variation across the UK in the time local authorities take to make planning permission decisions.
  • The government has relaxed planning restrictions and introduced tougher limits on local authority planning permission deadlines to speed up the building of new homes.
  • Delays to house building planning permission applications should continue to be factored into risk management.

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Modern House Building: the Skills Needed for Future Growth