Opinion: Here’s what the government should do to overhaul our broken planning system

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Is bureaucracy getting in the way of building new homes? (Source: Getty)

According to homeless charity Shelter, some 250,000 people remain homeless and a new report by think-tank Civitas reveals that, due to population growth, over 4.45m homes would be needed by 2039.

As a country, we are not building enough homes and this has been an issue for at least a decade. But how can we do that when the planning system is so archaic?

There is very little chance of hitting the Government’s target of delivering a million new homes by 2020 – ­which equates to 300,000 per annum – unless there are radical changes to the planning system, which is not fit-for-purpose.

Currently, local authorities employ qualified and skilled officers to access planning applications, which they rigorously review and challenge developers on, to ensure they are meeting stringent planning policy/guidance. Then they make recommendations to Planning Committees on whether to approve or decline applications.

Unfortunately, these committees are simply not aligned with planning officers and the planning system. Here, in this part of the process, decisions made by the ‘lay person’ are based on politics and the desire to be re-elected. Until this conflict, which has existed as long as I can remember, is resolved, housing delivery is going to continue to be hampered.

The planning system needs to come right up-to-date and be restructured. We must stop relying on aforementioned ‘nimbys’ to make the final decision, especially if years of planning consultation have gone into a development site – often for the opportunity to transform an area, such as derelict brownfield sites.

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Additionally, the Planning Committees should be made accountable for costs awarded against councils for having got the decision wrong in the planning process.

Since April 2016, the Planning Inspectorate has received 1,363 appeals for developments with over 10 homes or more. Out of those 1,274 decided upon, 40 per cent were won by the developer, proving the planning system is really being hampered by red tape and indecision.

Take for example the recent legal victory by one developer in Bromley, which won two separate planning appeals, both previously refused by the council. Additionally, the Planning Inspector awarded full costs associated with the appeals against the council for ‘unreasonable behaviour’. So, the council, like in many of these appeals, ends up paying out large sums of money, at the tax payers’ expense but the original decision makers are not held accountable for this.

We must stop relying on aforementioned ‘nimbys’ to make the final decision, especially if years of planning consultation have gone into a development site – often for the opportunity to transform an area, such as derelict brownfield sites.

At Generator Group, we have a potential pipeline of 735 new homes (a mixture of affordable and private developments) at sites across the south, but a significant proportion of these units have been delayed in the planning system.

Considering there are around 2,500 SME housebuilders like us facing the same barriers, imagine how many homes are not yet out of the ground because of red tape, and how much councils are paying out in lost appeals.

In the commercial world, if money is lost then someone is usually held accountable. In the planning process, this does not happen and it is about time committees are penalised when they do get it wrong to ensure voting for or against a development is really in the best interest of all.