Proportionality in Planning

Comments from Christie McDonald, Associate

With many businesses across the UK struggling to break even (never mind turn a profit), the recent Killian Pretty Review should receive a warm response from organisations waiting to move on development proposals held up in the bureaucracy of the current planning application process.

The review, which aims to deliver ‘a faster and more responsive system’, was jointly commissioned by the Communities and Business Secretaries and delivers proposals which, if implemented, could help free up the planning process and save UK businesses up to £300 million a year. With the current UK planning system ranked 61st in the world, it is clear that urgent improvements are needed, however with many of the current delays and difficulties having been brought about by changes that have emerged from similar reviews in recent years, the irony is not missed.

Earlier this year the 1APP was rolled out across England, standardising the planning process by removing differences in comparable applications between local authorities. The move, which was designed to speed up the planning system by reducing the burden on Local Planning Authorities (LPAs), in reality, streamlines the current system by requiring the frontloading of information by the applicant. Ensuring that everything relevant for assessment is present at the time of application has meant additional work up front from the applicant and it is highly debatable whether a ‘one size fits all’ application form is appropriate for all types of development. A major concern for planning professionals (in both the public and private sectors) is that the consideration of development proposals is currently very much process driven rather than outcome focussed; the introduction of the 1APP may have sped up the process for LPAs, but what is worrying is how much of this is through a reduction in the number of applications submitted as the added expense and complexity of the application process turns many people away from projects they might have otherwise taken on.

There is no denying that development is urgently needed to boost local economies and tackle the current housing shortage and the Report’s findings that 10% of major developments are typically delayed by a year is hard to swallow. One major problem with the current system highlighted is that planning permission is required for very small building alterations; a rule which can cause unnecessary hold ups, and incur detrimental costs which are out of proportion with the plans proposed.

The issue of proportionality is not new to those working within the planning system; earlier this year the British Property Federation (BPF) expressed its concern with the amount of information required to support current planning applications in its Planning Manifesto ‘Making Planning Work’. The BPF manifesto recommends that ‘the level of information required to support a planning application should be proportionate to the application and should be clearly relevant to the decision or to a condition or obligation.’

In reality the validation checklist used by local authorities has resulted in the most standard of applications being supported by a mass of unnecessary information. LPAs need to be encouraged to adopt the ‘less is best’ principle, only asking for information that is actually needed to make a decision and ensuring that the right amount of information is required for the right kind of application.

The Killian Pretty Review aims to redress this imbalance and proposes that the process is made simpler for small scale, low impact developments. By considerably expanding the scope permitted for non-householder development, the report expects to exempt 15,000 minor commercial and other non-residential developments per year from the need to obtain planning permission, a proposal which would greatly benefit small businesses who aim to make minor changes to their premises. In addition, by revising and expanding the prior approval system, and introducing measures to encourage the use of Local Development Orders to extend the range of permitted development rights, nearly 40% of minor non-residential developments will be removed from the need to apply for full planning permission, saving over £30 million a year.

Of course one concern raised by such proposals is that planning applications are the main source of funding for the majority of local authorities and by implementing such reforms their fee income will be greatly reduced. However in addition to recommending financial incentives for better performing LPAs (possibly in the form of higher fees), the review goes on to recommend measures to reduce information and validation requirements, particularly for householder and minor developments. Such an approach will reduce the encumbrance on applicants having to provide unnecessary information, thereby reducing the burden on LPAs helping to speed up the entire application process, and saving on administration costs.

With many LPAs currently struggling with a shortage of qualified and motivated staff, along with limited resources, introducing the measures outlined in the Killian Pretty Review will provide a much needed boost to help councils remove the administrative burden from planning departments and better target resources, allowing them to provide a high quality and responsive service in return for their application fee.

The current economic crisis will no doubt be causing many local authorities and developers to look at their processes and reassess their priorities. Simplifying the system for smaller, low-impact developments will leave planning departments to get on with processing applications for larger developments, a move which would help support and accelerate the economic wellbeing of our towns, cities and rural areas as the economy begins to recover.