This week has seen a welcome focus on what the Government can do to ease the housing supply – with welcome announcements on Starter Homes and Garden Villages. But the House Builders Federation has produced a report on some of the needless delays imposed by councils. It is not just a matter of the length of time it takes to grant planning permission, but whether the conditions attached are reasonable. Even if they are, the problem is often that they are “Pre -Commencement Conditions” (so they have to be carried out before any building work can start) when they could be pre-occupation conditions and thus could be applied without causing delay.
For instance, it might be quite reasonable for a children’s playground to be included in a new development – and for the size and position of the playground to be specified. But one council prevented any construction starting until the “scale drawings of the placement of picnic tables and refuse bins” in the children’s playground were provided. Or let us agree, for the sake of the argument, that inclusion of public art can be a valid requirement. That does not mean that there needs to be a requirement, as happened with one council, for detailed statements on the “engagement and recruitment of local artists”.
Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman of the HBF, said:
“We simply have to find a way to unblock the system and reduce the time it takes to get a permission to the stage where builders can actually start building. Construction work shouldn’t be held up by council officers getting round to approving designs for landscaping, playgrounds or ensuring developers are liaising with community artists. These could be agreed whilst infrastructure work gets started. Our housing crisis is too serious a threat to our future for everyone not to be pulling in the same direction.
“House builders are keen to increase output further but all parties need to work together if we are going to solve our housing shortage.”
The Neighbourhood Planning Bill should help with this. Local authorities will be told not to impose demands as Pre-Commencement Conditions which could be Pre-Occupation Demands. It would also help if the Government brought in transparency requirements to show how long local authorities take to discharge the conditions they impose. After six weeks an applicant can serve notice that they “deem” that a planning condition has been discharged unless they hear from the Council within two weeks. But they are reluctant to do this in case the antagonised planning officer looks for some spurious grounds for refusing to do so. What if there is a random concern about a flower bed in the landscaping proposals? Back to square one. At least a league table would give an idea of which councils are the most unreasonable in this regard.
Another reform that could help is over the Council being a middle man. Let us consider drainage. The builder goes through the arrangements with Thames Water (or whichever relevant water company). But rather than Thames Water being able to provide the builder with a certificate to include in the application, the local authority has to write to Thames Water asking for their confirmation that they approve the arrangements. This wastes everybody’s time and causes further delay. What if the planning officer is on holiday? What if the relevant chap at Thames Water is on holiday?
Of course all these burdens don’t just mean that it takes longer for homes to be built. It pushes up the costs – so the homes cost more. Or sometimes they don’t get built at all.
So it is right for the Government to take action. But it is a pity that is needed. Of course councils always say the answer is for them to be given more money. Therefore in this context they demand higher planning fees without any requirement for improved performance. If anything that would probably make matters worse. Those councils that are performing well don’t need extra resources. Those that are performing badly should not have their failure subsidised. Planning fees are already pretty steep – £385 a dwelling. What is needed is incentives to get new homes built – not extra penalties.
Instead the focus should be on the method of working in planning departments. Excessive conditions are not be casually imposed – by doing so planning officers increase the burden on themselves as well as on builders. The era of new technology makes it easier to copy and paste lengthy requirements without much thought. But making unreasonable demands builds up extra work later, to assess if the requirements have been fulfilled. It can also increase the Council’s legal bills when Section 78 appeals are upheld against it.
Anti development policies also mean that councils are missing out on New Homes Bonus funding. Certainly they should having planning policies in place that ensure development is attractive (often planning policies effectively stipulate the opposite). But within those principles pettifogging delays are in nobody interests.
It’s all very well talking about “land banking” – land where planning permission has been granted but the building work has not yet started. When you look into the details it is not such a mystery. Councils should do something about it and stop blocking the supply of attractive new homes that we all agree are needed.