When delay in the planning system is identified as a restriction on the housing supply, the planning officers are usually quick to come up with the answer: more planning officers. The answer also involves increasing fees – which then provide the revenue to fund the extra salaries.
I am sceptical. There is seldom any undertaking to improve performance in return for the higher fees. Vague references tend to be made to “investing” the extra “resources” in the service. What about something more tangible – such as refunding fees if deadlines are missed?
The reality is that the inefficiency in the system is staggering. A report from the House Builders Federation offered some examples of the absurdities they face.
There is scant evidence of much correlation between the number of planning officers and the number of planning applications approved. I put in FOI requests to London councils asking how many planning officers each Council employs and how many planning applications are approved. The figures suggest a wide range in productivity.
Barking and Dagenham
Nine planning officers approved 1,338 applications last year, 149 each.
67 planning officers approved 7,708 applications last year. 115 each.
14 planning officers approved an estimated 2,500 applications last year. 179 each.
76 planning officers approved 4,468 applications last year. 59 each,
40 planning officers approved 4,111 applications last year. 103 each.
30 planning officers approved 1,032 applications last year. 34 each.
21 planning officers approved 2,650 applications last year. 126 each.
Hammersmith and Fulham
22 planning officers approved 3,248 applications last year. 148 each.
32 planning officers approved 3,424 applications last year. 107 each.
13 planning officers approved 1587 applications last year. 122 each.
Kingston upon Thames
13 planning officers approved 1,341 planning applications last year. 103 each.
51 planning officers approved 2,011 applications last year. 39 each.
14 planning officers approved 2,652 applications last year. 189 each.
59 planning officers approved 1,947 applications last year. 33 each.
26 planning officers approved 3523 applications last year. 135 each.
85 planning officers approved 5,498 applications last year. 65 each.
13 planning officers approved 1,922 applications last year. 148 each.
18 planning officers approved 1,175 applications last year. 65 each.
47 planning officers approved 8,522 applications last year. 181 each.
Of course the planning system has vast complexity – that is the whole problem. Therefore this measure is pretty rough and ready. There are an array of different types of planning applications – some councils may be able to dig into the detailed statistics to show they have a higher share of big developments to cope with.
Another point is that some councils might be more liberal about permitted development rights. Often some minor application goes through pretty much automatically – very little work for the planning officer, but they still charge a resident a fee and delay the work being done. Greater use of permitted development rights would be efficient as planning applications are then not needed – yet that would perversely make a council less productive on the measure in the table above. However, I am not aware of that being the case in practice.
So there could be explanations as to why Newham’s planning officers approve 33 applications a year each, while Westminster’s average is 181. Or why Lambeth’s score is only 39 while next door Merton manages 189. Greenwich Council may offer some plausible account of why their planning officers can only cope with 34 each, when in in neighbouring Bexley the equivalent figure is 179.
All I would suggest is that it is naive to expect increased planning fees to improve the housing supply. Councils have a monopoly on this. Greater revenue could well embed inefficiency and allow bureaucratic empires to be kept in tact. Pointless impositions and delays that should be swept away would be maintained.
As Cyril Northcote Parkinson so clearly explained to us all those years ago:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”