The UK has one of the strictest and most complex planning application processes in the world. Dave Howell assesses how this could change in the wake of the Raynsford Review.

The planning system

The UK planning system has been growing more complex for decades and is often pointed to as the single major cause of community disruption and developer frustration. The Raynsford Review of Planning in England final report published late last year. Its remit was to overhaul the planning system and make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Did this review go far enough? Will its recommendations have a positive impact on planning across England?

In the Review, Housing Minister Nick Raynsford stated: “Planning is at best slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic, an obstacle to getting things done, or at worst “the enemy of enterprise” which needs to be dismantled.” However, with chronic underfunding and a continuing perceived adversarial stance by planning services, the changes that the Review outline won’t come quickly or easily. Indeed, speaking to Building, Nicola White, a project director with Arup, said: “The question is whether the system is broken and needs to be fixed, or whether it needs to be worked better. There are frustrations, of course, but it can work well.”

The planning system can often seem impenetrable to the communities that proposed developments will affect. Assessing a scheme can be complicated. A less opaque system of access to planning applications is one area that could be vastly improved across all planning services websites. More use of social media to create virtual chatrooms and formal meetings are suggested to open the planning system to its communities.

Also, permitted development (PD) has been a contentious issue for several years, as local council powers to develop non-residential buildings into private homes was reduced. Raynsford suggests these powers be reinstated to give councils the flexibility they need, especially in areas where large areas of commercial buildings are either not being used or derelict. Indeed, Hugh Ellis, Interim Chief Executive of the TCPA, was stark in his criticism:

“PD is toxic and leads to a type of inequality not seen in Britain for over a century. Under the arrangements — which have already produced over 100,000 housing units — vulnerable people are stripped of any right to light and space, with their children forced to play in active car parks — and no contribution to local services such as doctor's surgeries or local schools. We have a choice. Do we want to build the slums of the future or create places that actually enhance people’s lives?”

Focused action is needed to tackle the multifaceted issues that planning services now face. With so many stakeholders, a consensus can be challenging. Planning from a safety aspect will rapidly evolve in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Commercial and domestic construction, however, may have to continue to navigate the complexities of the current planning system for the foreseeable future.

Groundworks

Croner-i Construction spoke with Paul Wakefield, associate partner in the planning team at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.

In your view, will the recommendations of the Raynsford Review fundamentally change the planning environment across the UK?

“If the proposals set forward in the Review were to be adopted in full, then there is no doubt that they would fundamentally change the UK’s planning system for the better. The Review reaches some important conclusions and sets out some seemingly effective strategies. However, there is a substantial caveat: with the Government currently embroiled in all things Brexit, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future, it seems highly unlikely that it will be able to find the time or the resource to carry out such a holistic overhaul of the current system.”

Which elements of the current system do you think need the most reform from a construction company point of view?

“The construction industry is plagued by uncertainty, particularly around gaining planning permission. This means that any potential developments carry with them a great deal of risk, with developers having to invest heavily with little guarantee of success. Even if a project is not going to be granted permission, having knowledge and understanding of this at an early stage would go a long way to removing the cost and time implications currently involved in any large-scale construction programmes.”

Will there always be an adversarial element to planning when developers and the public clash over new planning applications?

“Planning and development are naturally subjective and often contentious areas. Each party will usually want different, conflicting outcomes, and this means there is an inevitable tension in the dealings between developers and the public. No matter how thorough or innovative Raynsford’s proposals are, or how comprehensive any new legislation might be, the differences of opinion won’t change.”

Is more investment and funding into planning services needed to radically transform the planning sector for the better?

“An increase in funding certainly wouldn’t hurt. The recent budget cuts to planning services have hit hard and led to a lack of funding throughout local authority planning departments. These need to be able to attract the best and brightest into their ranks and retain them once they are on board. A boost in investment would help to set up better career paths, allowing local authorities to better compete with the private sector and keep staff turnover down.”

Is the proposed revocation of the PD system a practical way to positively reform the planning system in your view?

“The PD system has made office-to-residential conversions relatively easy to complete, but that doesn't mean that some developments haven't suffered for it. Many conversions completed under the system have ended up with unsuitable accommodation and a poor sense of place. The PD system also means that no section 106 contributions are made to help develop the surrounding infrastructure.

“Rethinking this system may well be a positive move as it could lead to more assurances of quality and harmonisation among new developments. However, this will only be the case as long as all of the other proposals are implemented at the same time. It will be of no use to increase the number of planning applications being submitted without increasing the resource to cope with them, as this would simply result in a worsened backlog.

“An adoption of the policies outlined in the Raynsford Review would be a pleasant surprise, given the political quandary the UK currently finds itself in. However, what is perhaps most crucial is that the Government doesn’t pick and choose elements of the review's proposals to bring forward. This piecemeal approach has been adopted before and simply hasn’t worked, meaning that it would likely only lead to greater confusion.”

Conclusion

Raynsford’s core conclusion is that planning services should offer: “broader social, economic and environmental implications for people and places”. These are noble and bold aspirations, but a root and branch reform of planning is a major undertaking.

Change is clearly needed to resolve the persistent housing crisis across the UK. Planning as a whole does need to be more inclusive of the communities it serves. A considerable increase in funding will also be required to action change. The Raynsford Review is the most comprehensive overview to date. Whether there is the desire and resources to implement real change has yet to be seen.

Last reviewed 4 March 2019