The State of Planning in the UK

I have just recorded a podcast for a good property entrepreneur friend of mine, Dave Hartnet of Mountbatten Estates, and one thing it got me to do was reflect on the state of the system today in 2022.

The podcast also comes at a time of change, we have just had the first proper update to the UK Planning Portal for five years. We are seeing alterations to the way the Inspectorate works and we are seeing the new department for Leveling Up, Homes and Local Government announce its leveling up agenda.

But what about the front line of planning in England. In my previous article I reported that some 51 of the planning authorities this year have found themselves in presumption this year. Some have appalling rates of planning delivery with Southend propping up the country with a delivery of 31% over need over the past three years!

Remember that planning authorities are meant to deliver housing through granting sustainable developments:

9. These objectives should be delivered through the preparation and implementation of plans and the application of the policies in this Framework; they are not criteria against which every decision can or should be judged. Planning policies and decisions should play an active role in guiding development towards sustainable solutions, but in doing so should take local circumstances into account, to reflect the character, needs and opportunities of each area.

Para 9 of the 2021 NPPF

38. Local planning authorities should approach decisions on proposed development in a positive and creative way. They should use the full range of planning tools available, including brownfield registers and permission in principle, and work proactively with applicants to secure developments that will improve the economic, social and environmental conditions of the area. Decision-makers at every level should seek to approve applications for sustainable development where possible.

Para 38 of the 2021 NPPF

So what is happening today? Why is it that applications for development are seen so negatively from the outset rather than looking at things in a more positive light as per the instructions in para 38.

Ultimately it is all about time and culture.

I have a lot of sympathy with planning officers today. My former colleagues at Portsmouth are typically handling a rolling 100 applications each. If they adopt a 1 job per day strategy then that 100 days of work. Even if that does not sound much remember it is a rolling treadmill of applications so every app that drops off is replaced by another.

Add to that the government mandated time limits. An 8 week application needs to be dealt with inside of approximately 60 days. The math just does not balance. One application per day means that adding a case to the load will automatically lead to that case being 40 days overdue.

Having been a planning officer myself one job per day is a reasonable expectation for good decision making, its a principle that holds true for my workload today and so in essence any application is destined to go out of time.

Lets then turn to culture. Planning today is habitually in everyone’s bad books. For the Government planning must do more and deliver bigger and more beautiful buildings, for developers planning is seen as a blockage to development, for homeowners planners are just unfair adopting almost arbitrary views on development. This means that a Planning Officer today is everyone’s bad guy and can never be right.

I reflected upon this during a podcast recording in Lockdown 1 – I said to the interviewer “I am in a profession where I will never win the game, I will get close sometimes but never win” when questioned on this standpoint I reiterated the sentiment above. That is as a planner I am always upsetting someone. There is simply no equity in the process.

That lack of equity breeds culture in decision making. It is easier today for planners to ignore their statutory duty under the act and the NPPF and just refuse. This may feel very cynical however from experience it is the way the system is pushing the profession. With time limits and work pressure it is better to get an application off your desk rather than negotiate and work towards a shared solution. In council’s such as Maidstone and Southend in particular this is the norm with no negotiation during the process and in Southend in particular – no pre-application either. Refusing an application transfers the position of prime dark lord of planning from the Case Officer (now hero of the people for refusing your consent) to the Planning Inspectorate who are otherwise protected by layers of staff and procedure.

For council’s under the threat of government intervention through special measures a culture of refusal is otherwise counter productive as it simply does not deliver on government objectives for housing delivery and quality of decision making. However it today’s planning world one has to ask what is better?

By Jon McDermott