Monday, 16 June 2014

More pain for struggling planning authorities

It has no doubt been a considerable disappointment to De-CLoG ministers that, despite all the huffing and puffing on the part of Yorkshire’s Biggest Export, only one local planning authority has ended up being put in special measures on the grounds of alleged poor performance (Blaby – a Tory-controlled council in Leicestershire), and it looks as though only one county planning authority (actually a unitary – Trafford) will join them on the naughty step, on account of their performance in dealing with minerals and waste applications.

It was with this in mind that ministers have tried to dream up other ways in which they could sweep local planning authorities into the net, although (when you think about it) the whole idea seems pretty daft, as most developers probably won’t want to apply for planning permission direct to the Planning Inspectorate. What vast number of such direct applications have there been in Blaby so far, I wonder?

Anyway, undeterred by the sheer pointlessness of the exercise, De-CLoG has now announced the outcome of the consultation it launched in March. Among the ideas that had been canvassed was a rise in the percentage threshold to 40% or even 50% for determining major applications within the target period (13 weeks, or 16 weeks where EIA is involved). Instead of abandoning the daft idea of judging LPA performance by the speed of decision-making, it seems the government has settled on a 40% threshold (which actually represents an increase of one-third in the number of major applications that LPAs will now have to process on time).

There will be an exemption for LPAs receiving no more than two major applications over the two-year assessment period, but this means that an authority that receives only three such applications will have to determined two out of the three on time in order to meet the 40% threshold, because meeting the target time for only one out of the three would be belowe the 40% benchmark! Such an authority would in practice be facing a 66% threshold. (Which just goes to show how daft this game really is.). Not content with this, ministers have thrown in a veiled threat that the threshold could still be upped to 50% at some time in the future, although this may be an empty threat if the current motley crew get thrown overboard by the electorate at the General Election in 11 months’ time.

The other whizzo wheeze that ministers have dreamed up is the proportion of decisions on major applications that are overturned at appeal. The threshold here is losing 20% of such appeals over a two-year period. LPAs will be assessed against each of these two criteria independently, and so could be put in the sin bin on the basis of either or both of these. On the lost appeals criterion, there will be an exemption for those authorities receiving 10 or fewer major applications in the two-year period.

One point which is not spelt out, but which may lie behind ministerial thinking, is that LPAs who turn down major housing applications on un-allocated green field sites, but then lose subsequent appeals because they can’t demonstrate a 5-year housing supply, could be at some risk of being ‘designated’ under the appeals criterion if they lose, say, three out of 11 to 15 major appeals in their area. This could act as a further strong incentive to councils to ensure that their local plans are updated as soon as possible, so as to allocate enough housing sites to meet the 5-year housing land supply requirement in the NPPF and, in the meantime, to let these applications through, rather than risk losing appeals and getting sat upon by the Secretary of State (a painful experience, as the Leader of Blaby Council has discovered).

I wonder whether the government is going to keep up this performance all the way to the General Election? With UKIP snapping at their heels (having jumped on this conveniently passing bandwagon), I find it hard to believe that ministers will be able to resist making a U-turn at some time between now and next May.



  1. Oh you cynic!

    However, given that PINs are allowing 34% of appeals (excluding householder appeals from this equation), one can guess a number of authorities may get caught. It looks even more likely when you examine the number of majors PINs allows on appeal, which seems to be 53%.

    Don't you just love localism. But given they got rid of the Regional tier of government, someone had to step in to balance out the Nimbys.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly with the blog, but on the 'quality' test, the 20% threshold is of all major decisions over the 2 year period. So, if you make 100 major decisions a year, you would have to have 40 cases overturned at appeal over the period to be designated.

    The most recent tranche of planning statistics don't have anyone in the designation zone. The current bottom of the table has made 12 major decisions, 3 major appleals and 2 major overturns.

  3. Hi Martin, good article (as ever).

    Wouldn't it be far better to measure authorities against whether they’re achieving good development and working in the public interest? Arbitrary targets have created huge waste in the planning system and continue to drive perverse behaviours.

    At my authority, we measure against what is important to our customers. This includes true end to end times (pre-application to being able to put a shovel in the ground). This has driven out perverse behaviours such as refusing on day 55, putting rafts of pre-commencement conditions on permissions (unless the customers would like this) and invalidating applications/creating unnecessary delay. On that point, the number of people in ‘validation teams’ now rivals the number of planners in some authorities! We have a team comprised entirely of planners who take the work from the customer and work on the application from start to finish.

    The working methodology is as simple as possible, focusing on the needs of the customer (whoever that may be) and compliance with the statutory framework.

    I am acutely aware that MP’s do love a good statistic to hang their hats on, so I’ll leave you with this one: at my authority the previous average time to deal with a planning application was 100 days (including ‘validation’), it’s now under 30 (and still falling).

  4. Agreed on the perverse outcomes of the target fixation of recent (and not so recent) years.

    Although that "under 30 (and still falling)" is presumably skewed by the new raft of prior approval application types?

    But you are to be commended on focusing on the needs of the customer!

  5. A Johnson;
    I think your comments need some context....
    How many applications (Major, Minor and Other) does your Authority determine every year and how many planners do you have dealing with them?

  6. I hope I'm mistaken, but it *seems* to be the case that LPA's are assessed simply on whether an application is resolved on time, or it isn't. In consequence, if an application looks set to over-run, then it just seems to get pushed to the back of the pile. An applicant is unlikely to take their case to PINS under these circumstances, because that would take even longer! This cannot be the intended consequence of establishing targets.

  7. Where is this Utopia where A Johnson works?