We know the planning system is over complicated, but if we want to solve it we need to get specific, writes Anna Clarke.
We often hear that the planning system has too much red tape, that it’s slow and overly complex. But we also forget to explain exactly what we mean by that, and set out practical ways of changing it. As a result, the housing conversation can feel like shouting into the void.
For example, the Housing Forum recently set up a working group to commission some research to explore how planning might be streamlined. This was in response to the work we do with all our members – from local authority planners, housing associations and architects. New homes are badly needed, but making it easier to increase housing supply – as well as quality – is no mean feat.
One of the things we looked at was what needs to be submitted for a planning application to be ‘validated’ – that is, for a planning department to confirm that they have the information needed to make a decision.
Councils are supposed to issue a checklist of what is needed – but the system is struggling. Out of the 30 authorities sampled, only nine had validation checklists dated within the last two years (as they should be). The rest were older, or absent.
Within the checklists of 21 authorities, they listed 119 different types of documents that might be needed to validate planning applications for new housing. One authority individually listed 42 different types of document.
None of this comes labelled as “red tape” of course. So it’s crucial to understand what we might need to compromise on if we want to make planning simpler. Documents that are almost always required include tree surveys, transport assessments and affordable housing statements. But there was also a long list of types of documents only asked for in 1 of the 21 planning authorities we looked at – water efficiency statements, window plans, carbon assessments and details of water butts.
This range of requests has grown considerably over recent years – as planning has become expected to deal with more and more issues, from building safety, to water pollution to biodiversity to promotion of an active lifestyle. These are all good things, but cumulatively, they do make it harder to build houses.
Validation checklists aren’t working and there are alternatives. For example, a planning statement based system would be preferable. This is more accessible and better tells the “story” of the proposed new housing.
The government also needs to undertake a “root and branch” review of local validation requirements to establish whether the planning system is the right place for each.
Alongside this, ministers need to make sure councils are asking for things at the right time. When putting in an application, a housebuilder may not yet know every last detail of it. If they are asked for everything at the start, they’re forced to make a “best guess”.
Later on, supplies of materials become unavailable, costs increase, or new policies come in. They can apply to amend the permission they’ve been granted to accommodate the change needed. However, this can be damaging to community trust – as people feel they were promised one thing and something else has been delivered. Instead, consultation needs to become much more of an ongoing exercise – starting earlier before key decisions are taken, but also continuing longer – and for larger sites throughout the many years it takes to build the housing.