Surveyors Discuss: The main challenges for the planning system in the near future
December 12, 2022
A little while ago I was asked what I thought the main challenges will be for the planning system in the near future. Unfortunately, at the precise time that the question was put to me, my main focus was on a bacon roll and I didn’t have a very good answer. Slightly embarrassed by my mouth full mumblings, I gave the matter some thought over the intermittent period and, in a more ideal world, this would have been my response.
KD’s Planning and Development Team deals predominantly with development land and land that has the potential for development. This includes strategic land assembly, option and promotion agreements, the sale of land with and without planning permission, development appraisals, s106 negotiations and viability assessments, overages and ransoms along with the valuation of all these elements and therefore our exposure to the planning system and its planning policies is frequent. What I initially see as the main issues for the planning system, in respect of development, will be a continuation and worsening of the existing challenges and will be an opinion shared by many others – delays and costs. As the requirement for technical and supporting information to an outline planning application becomes ever more detailed and onerous, cost inevitably rises and will continue to rise, and my concern for the future is that it will take the ability to seek planning away from the everyday person, allowing it to become a service that only those already well funded can access.
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In many cases now, an applicant can no longer have an informal discussion with their local planning authority about their planning proposals, instead being directed down the pre-application advice route, if that is even still a given option. In many respects, this is a sensible approach given that hard working, but resource depleted planning departments no longer have the time to deal with the sheer numbers of applications they receive expediently, let alone time to discuss individual proposals before any application is prepared. That said, perhaps some engagement at an early stage will facilitate quicker assessments of certain applications and borderline cases. In any event, pre-apps can still be expensive as they invariably need to include some element of technical information in order to obtain a meaningful response. Unfortunately, the systematic reference to the pre-app process has resulted in high numbers of these submissions, and now the pre-app response can sometimes take as long as a planning application.
Which brings me on to the issue of delay.
The requirements for planning applications are not only more onerous and detailed for an applicant, but also for the local planning authority, with officers having to consider and report to their members on highly detailed technical information. With the lack of resources within planning departments, it is no wonder that planning applications are taking increasingly longer to determine. However, the recent financial turbulence demonstrates the potential effects of an extended delay for an applicant. Only a few months ago the housing and residential land market was healthy, despite being tested by interest rate rises in an attempt to control inflation. Then, a single announcement from the government plunged the country into a period of huge uncertainty, leaving developers and promoters whose planning applications were slowly making their way through the planning system, wondering for a time whether they will ever see a return on their planning outlay.
Of course, the government’s budgetary decision is not the fault of the planning authorities, but it can illustrate how delay can have unforeseen and potentially significant consequences.
Photo by Chanita Sykes
These issues have always been there but there is no doubt that we have now seen them become exponentially worse. To potentially compound concerns for developers and landowners, we have now very recently experienced the potential for government organisations to introduce sanctions on planning at, what appears to be, the proverbial drop of a hat, compounding the issues of cost and delay significantly as well as placing additional pressures on planning authorities. I am, of course, referring to the Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and the moratorium on planning introduced by Natural England earlier this year. For those outside the region, you may have also been aware of a similar moratorium in Kent with regards to nitrate vulnerability, but it is the Beechwoods moratorium with which we have direct experience.
There is no question that the impacts of this moratorium have cost some of our clients substantial amounts of money; clients who already had planning permission before the moratorium was introduced and were simply seeking to sell their site. When first introduced, it was expected to be resolved relatively quickly, and while it appears as though a resolution is now imminent, the length of time has dragged on and our clients may now be forced to retain their development land until the existing turbulence has passed, after already incurring significant legal fees trying to establish terms for a conditional sale contract that accounts for an unknown outcome. It will be the same story for developers and housebuilders, and I am sure it has cost some their businesses, as reserve matters and discharge of conditions remain on hold while repayments on their borrowing do not.
Of course, as more homes are required and inevitably development on green space takes place, it is very important that we preserve those historical habitats, but it does often seem to be developers who bear the cost. Of course, we would hope that such moratoriums are specific and infrequent, but now that one precedent has been set, will similar ones follow?
We already have the relatively recent introduction of biodiversity net gain to mitigate the environmental impact of development, which ultimately, I think we will be grateful for in the long run, even if not at the time of making the application; but how far should or can such measures go? There is a fine line to tread between environmental protection and constraining a market that has always been fundamental to the health of the UK economy.
Photo by Alaur Rahman
There does not seem to be an obvious solution to head-off a situation where the system is completely overwhelmed or out of the financial reach of many. Attracting resource to planning departments is clearly critical, but with a national shortage of qualified planners there is competition to not only recruit but also retain staff. On occasion, having worked for an outsourcing company myself in the past, I wonder whether parts of the planning system could be out-sourced. It would take dedicated firms to be set up to handle the work, because most local, regional and national firms will be conflicted out of providing such a service, and would a planning system based on KPIs and profits produce a better result?
Ultimately, our planning system still works, but is clearly struggling at the local level, more than ever. It is becoming more onerous for those who use its services, with significant requirements frequently introduced that add financial strain for the applicant and additional responsibilities for the planning departments. There are, of course, applicants who have had bad and good experiences of the system but there is no doubt of the downward trajectory that many within our industry view it to be on.
Cover photo by Pixabay