• Planning sector struggles, but still delivers

Development activity in London is spreading outwards, with boroughs in the south east and far west emerging as high growth areas.
In contrast, boroughs in the north east such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Redbridge are losing out, with the number of major planning applications in decline. The figures come from the latest annual planning survey, carried out by consultants GL Hearn and the British Property Federation.
Notes the report: “After a surfeit of major applications at the start of the decade, determinations in these boroughs have dipped over recent years. Whether or not a future increase in applications determined by the LLDC will counteract these declines remains to be seen.”
Now in its fifth year, the report has tracked movement in major application numbers over the period. It found that 772 such applications were determined across Greater London in the last year, up 2% on the previous year.
The report also analysed approval rates across the UK, finding an 80% approval in Greater London being markedly lower than the 90% or more achieved elsewhere. The figure for London has declined, to the lowest level since the survey was first carried out. Notes the report: “With increased emphasis on the pre-planning stage, it would be hoped that the proportion of applications brought forward to determination in an acceptable manner to gain approval would be on the rise. As this is not happening, attention needs to be paid to understanding how we can minimise wasted effort on all sides by ensuring that all submitted applications are well informed, appropriate and more likely to ultimately succeed.”
The report found that a stressed planning system appears to be continuing to work well; but that sentiment is declining amid worries for the future. And frustration continues to rise, over the time taken to determine major applications. The average across the UK is now 31 weeks from submission to determination; and even the fastest borough managed just 27 weeks. However, among London boroughs, Sutton is a stand-out performer, averaging 18 weeks to determine all applications.
“Given the concerns about the need for investment in the system expressed in 2015, it should be seen as positive that the planning system is delivering broadly as well as it was last year,” commented Alastair Crowdy, managing director of Capita Real Estate Advisory and GL Hearn. “However, our survey data shows that the majority of the industry is concerned that the status quo isn’t going to be enough to deliver the development that Britain needs. It is clear that in a time of economic uncertainty it is unlikely that we’ll see the planning system receive a huge investment boost; we all know that there are other, more pressing priorities for the Government and for local authorities. As a result, we all need to work together – planners, developers and central government – to deliver innovative solutions and policies that will help get Britain planning again.”
And Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, added: “Average determination times are stagnating across the country, and the issue of under-resourcing continues to be very apparent. Government has made noises about addressing the issue but we have yet to see any policy announcements with teeth. If it wants to ensure that the development industry invests in our towns and cities, bring about growth and regeneration and deliver the homes we need, then local authorities need to be sufficiently resourced.”

LPA Perspective: The planning system continues to perform well, considering the level of stress it appears to be under, with issues around resourcing and the fees that can be charged, still not satisfactorily resolved. As developers have made clear, many would happily pay more, for a system that delivered greater certainty over timing.
Will anything change soon? In London at least, mayor Khan appears to be assembling central teams to help the boroughs with thorny problems such as viability; while it appears he also wants to intervene less than his predecessor, in major decisions.
The government does appear to want to help, and make it easier to get schemes into the development pipeline. Those polled in the survey did not appear to have a clear view on whether their interventions are actually helping. However, at the moment, government efforts to spread permitted development are only giving local authorities more work, as they seek Article 4 directions to restrict the new freedoms.
One clear call from the report is that public and private sector can and should work together, to deliver better planning. That’s a fine principle, but in the heat of the London residential market, it is clear that developers will continue to push the envelope – and it is down to planning officers to bridle those excesses back.

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