Planning approval

Planning applications all across Devon’s councils are currently suffering massive delays primarily due to staff shortages and a never-shrinking backlog of applications. Huge funding cuts over the last decade and minimal increases to application fees has meant that the Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) are having to deal with more issues, for less pay, and staff are not being retained.

Over the last 5 years or so the variability and quality of decision making has also become more of an issue. As an architect advising clients on what may or may not be viable at an early design stage having consistent decision making is critical. The variety between councils or, even worse, variety between officers within the same council can be frustrating. In the past a pre-application enquiry may have ironed out some more complex issues. However with such long delays to get results, it often isn’t worthwhile.

For small scale domestic extensions or minor development the national target is 8 weeks to a determination, or 12 for larger schemes. However some councils in Devon are really struggling and even basic extensions are taking in the region of 20 weeks, sometimes longer still.  Yes, you read that right, nearly half a year to make a decision on your extension.

Larger schemes such as multi-housing developments attract large fees and can enter into a Planning Performance Agreement (PPAs), essentially mapping out an agreed fixed timeline though pre-application discussions and negotiations towards a decision date. These PPA’s attract large fees (which can be into six-figures) so often do get prioritised by the LPA staffing who will schedule meetings with the necessary specialists and consultees pro-actively as the fees are dependent upon delivery. This is perhaps why you can be still waiting for your householder extension application, when it feels like the national housing developer is plowing on – it’s because they are. But, behind closed doors many of the planning considerations such as highways, drainage, ecology and such will have been partially agreed as part of this PPA process in the weeks, months and sometimes years leading up to the application, so it’s not as unfair as it initially seems.

On a domestic extension or small scale development the decision process is likely to be carried out by an individual case officer who will have to chase any consultees for a comment as necessary, and/or who may be having to make their decision with limited support. Chances are the planning officers left to deal with the minor applications are also the least experienced, further increasing the variability between officer decisions case-to-case. Where workload is such that regular team meetings or reviews are not able to take place, as it has become a fire-fighting process, or where staff turnover is high (as is the case with a lot of councils at the moment) this variety between case officer’s opinion is troubling and not helping quality of staff morale, or quality of decision making.

From the small-scale applicant’s perspective the process is a rocky road. As it has always been, you will find you may get a disproportionate amount of comments given the small scale, but close neighbours are inevitably more passionate than distant passer-bys of the larger schemes which can be sometimes more remote. You do tend to get emotional responses up-close. 3 or 4 objections to a house extension is quite a lot for a planner to deal with, yet 30 or 40 very similar objections to a housing development extending a village that also includes CIL funding, and affordable housing provision is probably less weighty due to the public benefit of the wider scheme. (Housing provision and funding.)

Paying a few hundred pounds for the application fee will make you feel that the council should be processing the application promptly, but in reality the comparative fees are very low. (For example a development of 5 houses = circa £2500; 10 houses = circa £4500; 30 houses = circa £14000, plus any PPA agreement, but the work done for the larger schemes isn’t always a proportional relationship to the fees earned: eg the larger projects are more ‘profitable’ for the council departments).

A delay following submission is at the moment inevitable. Unfortunately as there is no alternative, there is little option but to wait it out and hope for the best. Belligerent chasing will eventually create a response, but the end date may not be moved a great deal. The only alternative is to go through the appeal process after week 8, on the grounds of non-determination. This takes the application out of the LPA’s hands and goes to the national planning inspectorate. However, they are also a bit behind, and were also running at circa 20 weeks also at last check. So the outcome is basically the same. The main drawback of this route is that the localism and agent knowledge of the local authority is removed, as the appeal inspector will usually be out-of-area and less familiar with local documents and vernacular. (This may be considered a benefit of course!)

It is a tough situation, and while frustrating, simply one we have to navigate and plan for. Government have been making big announcements about planning reform or a big shake up, but realistically without increased funding for new staff, and increased funding to retain existing staff the workload isn’t going anywhere. Morale and recruitment is a major problem, most communication with the LPA from the public is in a complaining capacity and job satisfaction must be hard to achieve under these conditions.

Relaxing Permitted Development criteria isn’t going to solve the problem for the small project either, as you would still be well advised to seek a Lawful Development Certificate from the planning department, and as far as I can see, the criteria for most extensions isn’t being altered. (Eg different materials, ‘wrap-around’ single storey extensions, proximity to boundaries – these are highly common trigger points for requiring full/householder planning permission.)

The 3 year limit on planning permission is now actually quite tight, with a busy construction workforce and little certainty in planning outcomes. As a small architects practice it is a balance to plan future work and unless clients are willing to take the risk that planning approval will be given and proceed to the next steps (eg construction drawings), which can be costly, then the start date for producing construction drawings is unknown, and may have to join the back of the architects workload queue. This will further narrow the window for construction preparation and a start on site date.

The only chink of light at the end of the tunnel is that if your application has reached the 26 week mark then at least you are entitled to your application fee money back. Doesn’t help the cash stripped council though.

If you are a planner reading this, then my heartfelt sympathy goes out to you. Regular and honest communication updates will keep the majority of agents and applicants from the door, and we’ll sit tight and wait it out. For client’s; it is more of a word-of-warning, the delays are not going away anytime in the near future, and it will have to be factored in to your plans.

Since the time of writing, there may be some planning application fee rises due soon, if parliament vote them through. This will hopefully go some way to funding the departments better, but it is not going to tackle the backlog of delayed applications.