Britain’s planning system, which mostly dates from 1947, needs reform. Robert Jenrick’s 2020 Bill had worthy ambition: more houses, clearer rules, less paperwork and faster process. The average development currently takes five years to get to a final decision. It had support from many, including this Institute, but a number of local authorities, who deal with the lion’s share of this business, and Tory MPs took against it. The new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, dumped it, consulted widely and we can expect to see his version early next year. The central error, a not unfamiliar one, was Whitehall’s attempt to interfere in local matters. Local councils were seen as the bad guys, blocking new housebuilding, and the developers, who incidentally contribute to Tory party funds, were the
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Britain’s planning system, which mostly dates from 1947, needs reform. Robert Jenrick’s 2020 Bill had worthy ambition: more houses, clearer rules, less paperwork and faster process. The average development currently takes five years to get to a final decision. It had support from many, including this Institute, but a number of local authorities, who deal with the lion’s share of this business, and Tory MPs took against it. The new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, dumped it, consulted widely and we can expect to see his version early next year.
The central error, a not unfamiliar one, was Whitehall’s attempt to interfere in local matters. Local councils were seen as the bad guys, blocking new housebuilding, and the developers, who incidentally contribute to Tory party funds, were the good guys who should be allowed to build wherever they liked.
Let us hope that Mr Gove has learned three lessons: local councils are the good guys who should be helped collectively to deliver what the country needs, local decisions should be made locally and, thirdly, the fewer the tiers of government involved, the faster, cheaper and more democratic the decisions will be.
In my parish, a farmer suddenly decided a public footpath was not a right of way and blocked it off. The Parish Council objected and the District Council agreed. The farmer appealed to the County Council and the appeal was denied. The farmer, who has more money than sense, then appealed to the Planning Inspectorate which, remarkably, has a whole department dealing with trivia of this sort. The inspectors are based 200 miles from the footpath and were not keen to do any inspecting. Finally, one did and after a three day hearing. and a few months for mature consideration, sort of rejected the appeal, except it is not a final decision. Due to some legal, and trivial, technicalities, the door has to be left open for the farmer to appeal further. The whole process has taken more than seven years so far.
One swallow does not, of course, make a summer and 90% of footpath appeals are dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate (when they get that far) in 18 months or so, as are 90% of tree preservation orders, high hedge and hedgerow appeals (p.47). Planning decisions would be quicker and more certain if no more than two tiers of the hierarchy were involved, using a clearer set of rules. Footpaths, trees and hedges should be decided by Parish Councils, with appeal to the District Council. Developments, up to a developed value of, say, £10M, should be decided by District Councils with appeal to the County. Some higher level would be needed for County and unitary authorities with appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.
It is ridiculous that 42% of all major housing development appeals, and 36% of minor ones (house extensions), to the Planning Inspectorate are successful. Either the rules for approval/disapproval are insufficiently clear, or the District Councils are incompetent or the Planning Inspectorate is making up the rules as it goes along. The Planning Inspectorate’s “official statistics” are pre-occupied by the time taken to reach decisions, with no analysis of the reasons for allowing the appeals or rejecting them which is precisely what we need to know if the local authorities’ performance is to be improved. The Jenrick Bill was supposed to address the first of those but failed to do so. Monitoring local authority performance is a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC, previously known as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government). It is not the job of the Planning Inspectorate.
The Planning Inspectorate costs £64M p.a. (Annual Report p.68) with 759 people employed (p.94) but there is no analysis by department nor any analysis of decisions reached or the reasons. It is therefore not possible to estimate, from the Annual Report, the savings that would follow from trimming the Planning Inspectorate’s responsibilities as outlined above, namely removing local issues.
While developers claim that they are slowed down by the planning bureaucracy, many of the delays are caused by the developers themselves. Four tricks of the trade should be removed by the new Planning Bill:
The first is the “shadow application”. Here the developer knows what he wants and what will be approved. His application is for the latter but, instead of starting work, the applicant submits a stream of further applications, with real and bogus rationales, until the approval is close enough to his original intention. A local builder in North Norfolk kept submitting applications for the same site until the Council forgot to include the affordable housing requirement in the approval.
The second is the “fork in the ground”. The permission usually states the date by which building work must start. But putting a fork in the ground is enough to qualify, so the applicant does just that and then waits for inflation to make the applicant’s investment more attractive. The fork in the ground, and land banking are sensible responses to the uncertainties of the current planning system where the rules are simply not clear enough. Government needs to address both sets of uncertainties, delayed starts and planning risks, together.
The third is “everlasting applications”. Here the applicant ignores the approved plans and builds what he wants. Eventually the District Council will lose patience and issue a demolition order. First the applicant appeals on the grounds that, if the plans for what was built had been submitted, they should have been approved so all that is now needed is to rubber stamp the plans of the actual building. If that fails, a fresh (marginally different) application can be made every few months, each of which the Local Authority legally has to consider. That can continue indefinitely.
The fourth is the “money game”. District Councils have limited budgets for contesting appeals and lawyers are expensive. If the District Council looks likely to be low on the money or appetite for appeals, the applicant can outbid it, and some do. It’s a bit like poker; if you have a poor hand but your opponent cannot afford to “see” you, you will win.
And of course, all those ploys delay building the actual houses.
Finally, we have the conundrum of how the DLUHC can achieve its goals for the right numbers and types of new housing in the right places. The primary estimates should be bottom up, not top down. Volunteering is preferable to imposition. Districts should propose to Counties and counties to the DLUHC. In the probable event the totals are less than needed, some negotiation will be required. Given the amount of local authority funding that comes from central government, that influence might be enough but more may be needed. The new Bill should include a “self-balancing housing planning fund” administered by the DLUHC.
Local authority proposals would fall into three categories: acceptable, those from authorities persuadable with incentives and those from the obdurate. The last category should fund the incentives needed for the second category. NIMBYism should have a cost.
In summary, government should be sceptical of developers’ claims that bureaucracy should be blamed for building delays and that they should be given more help. Of course, building market price, affordable and social housing has to be economically attractive to developers or they just won’t get built. On the other hand, planning rules should be streamlined and clarified, and local authorities armed with better sticks to ensure prompt compliance. If more than 10% of appeals succeed, DLUHC should discover whether the rules are insufficiently clear or the original authorities were incompetent (or worse). The numbers and types of housing needed should be achieved by the DLUHC using a self balancing housing planning fund.
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