Who spends more on planning than they do on bricks?

How successful is the UK’s planning system?

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we spend more on planning than we do on bricks.”

We have paraphrased the words of Steve Morgan MBE, Chairman and Founder of Redrow Homes plc at this year’s annual planning survey hosted by GL Hearn and the British Property Federation. The grim grunts and knowing nods from the developers in the audience suggest that this sentiment appears to carry goes for the industry as a whole rather than just Mr Morgan.

The survey, unveiled the morning of the day the Government introduced the Housing and Planning Bill into Parliament, took a look at major applications in three principle areas – London, Greater Manchester and Bristol and its surrounding area. The survey also invited feedback from Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and applicants on their experiences of the planning system – where it is working and where it is not (the latter featuring more prominently in the results it is fair to say).

The Annual Planning Survey has established itself as a useful barometer for the performance of the UK’s planning system, and this year’s seminar appeared to report trends that have emerged previously. Overall, the number of major applications determined has gone down. London is down by 26% and Greater Manchester is down as well – only Bristol bucks this trend. Westminster, it should be said, do far better in this respect than other London councils. The one consistent figure has been approval rates – remaining largely static. So if the number of applications is falling then so too should the speed of determination? Apparently not, the speed has gone down by 10% overall, with the average time taken to decide on an application rising from 28 weeks to 34 weeks in London, reversing earlier progress.

The survey among applicants and LPAs shows that 75% of applicants are dissatisfied with the current planning system, and 50% of LPAs feel that the environment is worse than it was before the previous Coalition Government formed in 2010.

The panellists and the discussions that followed focussed on policy areas that may or may not be working. It is fair to say that developers are on the whole unhappy with the Community Infrastructure (CIL) in London – a system that is meant to bring speed and clarity to infrastructure contributions has ended up being interpreted as a cost on top of what can already be fairly hefty Section 106 contributions.

Attendees and speakers also hammered neighbourhood plans for acting as another brake on the planning process and allowing nimbyism to creep into the formal planning process. Surely neighbourhood plans can be a useful guide for a developer as it helps them tailor a scheme to local priorities in the pre-application phase meaning fewer revisions later in the process and ultimately more chance of achieving consent? This would be true if local plans were more reflective of broader local and regional needs and were therefore more of a useful tool for developers in bringing forward an application. The Government is currently consulting on what makes a good local plan so you can vent your frustrations here.

One area of Government policy that got a friendlier reception from developers was the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which brought clarity to tangled system and a presumption in favour of sustainable development.  NPPF is seen as having a positive effect on the number of applications being brought forward.

So, looking ahead at legislation coming in this parliament the Housing and Planning Bill entered Parliament this afternoon. The “planning” bit of this bill has not attracted too much attention in recent debates, but we can expect provisions on starter homes, custom and self-build homes and measures on presumption in principle. Interestingly as well for developers provisions for change of use from office to residential have been made permanent.

Ed Watson of Camden Council had the unenviable task of defending local planning authorities to a room full of developers and their various consultants. He did a good job highlighting that local government has had to make some pretty astronomic efficiency savings since 2010 and that this has had to be undertaken whilst protecting front-line services. Whilst Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) are seen by many developers as a cash cow for local authorities, Mr Watson was honest that his council depended on the funding but he also said that used in the right way they can deliver mutual benefit to the developer as well as the local authority. The survey found that 90% of LPAs see resourcing as a major issue. Developers themselves also found it to be a major problem, with two-thirds responding that they might be willing to consider paying higher fees for guarantees of more efficient consideration of applications by councils.

Local government has taken a bashing in previous spending rounds and the DCLG spokesperson at this morning’s event, whilst not wanting to leak any future policy announcements, did allude to the forthcoming publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Taking note of developer concerns about PPAs and their usefulness in achieving determination in a timely manner he said that fees should be linked to performance and the CSR may contain some measures in this respect, at least.

In all, there is broad recognition that the planning system in England does not work. Developers are frustrated by lengthy application processes, high barriers to market entry, and pervasive uncertainty. Local authorities are frustrated by budget cuts leading to chronic under-resourcing. The Government is frustrated that homes aren’t being built. There was a wide consensus that the planning system needs to be faster, more efficient, and more certain, but behind it all lurks the issue of resourcing. That may prove the key obstacle to getting the bricks and mortar back into place.