The COVID-19 crisis has created unprecedented challenges for many industries but none more so than the public sector whose resources are being stretched to breaking point. We, at LSH, work with Local Planning Authorities on a day-to-day basis and can relate to the constant pressures of meeting both application timescales and delivering on ambitious housing targets.
Aside from those on the front line, one area of the public sector that has been particularly affected are Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) who are under increasing pressure to keep the Planning System moving in order to support economic recovery at both a national and local level.
Following our recently published 'Five Point Plan to Reinvigorate Housing Delivery' and 'Perfect Planning' viewpoints we now set out some potential quick wins that LPA’s, with support from their counterparts in the private sector, could look to introduce to assist with the continued delivery of housing and other infrastructure in these pressing times.
- Adopt a major projects team
In our experience of working with a wide range of local authorities, we have found that those which have a dedicated major projects team deliver faster and more robust planning decisions than those without.
Even when homeworking, experienced officers who are able to focus on major scheme proposals by agreeing Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs), working through the pre-application process, negotiating S106 agreements and providing planning advice and input to evolving schemes is a huge benefit and streamlines the planning process.
- Significantly increase delegated authority
We share the frustration of planning officers and applicants alike when a simple new build dwelling requires committee approval because it has an objection. Not only does a Committee Report need to be written but officers can be caught up in committee proceedings for several hours, reducing their efficiency, effectiveness and ability to work on cases which warrant detailed consideration.
Significantly increasing delegated authority would allow a greater number of relatively minor developments with objections to be determined without the Committee, thereby freeing up capacity for the larger-scale schemes.
- Change the definition of major applications
The current threshold for major applications is 10 residential units and 1,000 sq m. Given advances in design, efficiency and the ambitions of local, regional and national policy to build at greater density, the definition of major applications are no longer fit for purpose. Whilst this is a national standard, LPA’s can influence the way these are dealt with at local level. Increasing them to 25 residential units and 2,500 sq m (commercial floorspace) would streamline the planning system, free up consultee time to focus on larger schemes and allow speedier delivery on smaller sites by reducing the submission requirements – something the London Plan is keen to see.
- A hard deadline on consultees
The standard 21 day consultation window should theoretically be sufficient to assess a proposal and provide feedback to the applicant. The underfunding of local authority planning departments has long-been a talking point but, where a PPA is agreed and a financial commitment given, there must be a mutual agreement to provide feedback in a timely manner.
The private sector must also play a role in this too, by providing documents on time and in a form that is legible and easily understood. Together, this would assist in reduced planning risk and result in the swifter delivery of permissions.
- Embrace technology
As remote working looks set to become the norm in the short to medium-term, both agents, developers and LPAs could look to embrace technology as their default position. For example, the considerations of a householder application are limited and often confined to the matters of amenity and visual impact. These can easily be discussed via telephone or video call which would free up officer time to deal with more complex major pre-application matters face-to-face.
Things such as video linking or live streaming committees to allow public participation, being able to serve notices online, issue documents bigger than 10 Mb, submit documents via Dropbox and moving to paperless applications will be key to keeping the Planning System moving.
Additionally, following a recent webinar with the leader of Hounslow Council, it is acknowledged that a significant proportion of deprived families in the borough don’t have access to the internet or a computer. As a result, LPAs need to consider ways in which access to the internet can be improved, potentially through access to public libraries or the provision of low cost internet options.
- Mandatory training for Committee Members
Many local authorities already provide web-based training for Committee Members on key information such as the planning process and code of practice but prolonged discussions about non-planning considerations are often rife in the Committee room.
An understanding of viability, the development process and the planning process is critical to ensure robust questioning and analysis can be undertaken by decision makers. Local Planning Authorities could also ask developers in their Borough to assist up-skilling decision makers, by explaining why schemes are progressed in a particular way, or providing information on the development process.
- Apply costs to appellants for submitting appeals
Not only is appeal work is time consuming for both LPAs and the applicant, roughly only 40% of major, 20% of minor and 35% of householder appeals are successful. Applying a fee for submitting an appeal, which would be refundable if successful, will ensure the applicant has fully considered the merits of doing so, thereby reducing the quantum of appeals while also providing a revenue stream for the Planning Inspectorate.
Rob Reeds, Associate Director of Planning, Development and Regeneration, commented:
“LPAs are key to helping the private sector deliver much-needed development but, with social distancing measures likely to remain in place for some time, all sectors across the property industry must adapt centuries-old ways of working.
“Our quick wins have little or no cost attached in respect of implementation and will enable the LPAs, with the collaborative support from the private and third sectors, to streamline their resources to provide a much more efficient service moving forward.”
How can we help?
As Planning Consultants, there are a range of tools we can deploy to support the delivery of vital construction projects during the current crisis.
From advising on local authorities on the redevelopment of their estates and land to supporting private developers in promoting land for development through the Local Plan process, our experienced team can assist in realising the potential of sites.
Need more advice?
This situation and Government guidance is evolving daily and we will continue to update our clients as more details are unveiled. You can also visit our dedicated COVID-19 online resource hub for additional guidance.
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