Marginal gains: it worked for British Cycling but will it work for the UK’s planning system?

The 2016 Annual Planning Survey

This week saw the publication of the 5th Annual Planning Survey “A blueprint for the future of planning in England” by GL Hearn and the British Property Federation.  The context has certainly moved on from last year’s survey when Parliament had just seen the introduction of the Housing and Planning Bill.

The launch event saw presentations from Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration and Skills, and Simon Gallagher, Planning Director, DCLG. Both Jules and Simon are new to their jobs and working for new administrations, again highlighting the new context in which local planning authorities (LPAs) and developers are operating.

Jules Pipe made a number of announcements in his speech. He confirmed that the new London Plan would be delivered in 2019 and that City Hall would be publishing the framework for this at the end of this month. He said that the mayoral team wanted to consult widely on this and that getting the process right in producing the plan will be as important as the final document.

Jules also confirmed that he would soon be publishing Housing Supplementary Guidance on the affordable element of a development. With the Mayor’s ambition to deliver 50% affordable across the capital the Housing SPG will be an important means to incentivise developer contributions and move beyond the need for developer viability assessments which have often been criticised as a means to get around S106 contributions. Developers that say they can’t meet their affordable quota will be scrutinised by a new GLA viability assessment team.

Simon Gallagher has recently joined DCLG from HM Treasury.  He recommended to anyone that hadn’t already done so to read Sajid Javid’s speech from Conservative Party Conference as this sets the tone and direction for policy making. It is a reality that we are simply not building enough houses however the impacts on intergenerational fairness need to be considered as well. In line with rhetoric from the Prime Minister industry that business has a responsibility to deliver. A housing white paper will be published later this year which will seek to consult with industry and local authorities on achieving these aims.

Highlighting a shift in the approach that we have seen from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond MP, compared to his predecessor, Simon said that whilst the current financial situation is the same as for the last Government there is “more space to have a discussion”.

Survey results

Ben Wrighton, Director of Planning at GL Hearn delivered a presentation on this year’s survey. The survey looks at two areas of research: the Major Planning Applications Review and the Annual Planning Survey.

The major applications research looks at the performance between different local planning authorities across the country and seeks to highlight best practice. Interestingly, London has brought forward 9 major applications per 100,000 residents over the last year however this falls behind the national average where the rate is 11 major applications per 100,000 residents. In London, top performers included Croydon, Southwark and Hounslow as in previous years. Local authorities were measured on the number of planning applications approved and length of time to determination.

On approval rates London again fell behind other areas showing an 80% rate of approvals compared to 91% in the Northern Powerhouse local authorities and the same rate in the South West.

Other findings showed that faith in the planning system has dropped to –9% net amongst developers (from + 11% net) and – 50% amongst local authorities. London’s average length of time to determination sits at 36 weeks which was seen as too long by developers and 60% of LPAs said they were under resourced, the latter a recurring theme on previous years.

On planning policy both developers and LPAs cited housing as there number one issue, in line with the current political agenda at both a local and a national level.  Within this LPAs highlighted affordable housing as being their biggest priority whereas developers cited homes for private sale with affordable coming second as a much lower priority. Respondents on both the developer and LPA side saw that the NPPF and Local Plans were helping  but that CIL has not been seen as helping on housing delivery. On Permission in Principle developers were understandably keen but local authorities less so, favouring a focus on application fees to help cover under resourcing.

In summary there is much to be done to improve the planning system in the eyes of LPAs and developers. The perennial issues persist where LPAs feel under resourced and developers want a system that is more efficient and less costly. However, as Ben Wrighton drew a parallel with the British cycling team, the survey results highlight that incremental gains are where most  progress can be made. People don’t want a whole new system, especially in the uncertainty created by Brexit, but what they do want is the current system to work better.