UK announces plans for more flexible planning scheme for new homes

Councils in the UK will compete to process planning applications and be able to offer fast track application services under new proposals from the government now out for consultation.

Ministers announced a pilot scheme which is the first step towards tackling the lack of incentive for councils to improve and speed up their planning service which has been causing drawn out applications and local frustration for both house builders and individual applicants.

The proposals are expected to boost house building and speed up the planning application process by giving applicants the choice of whether to submit their plans to the local council, a competing council or a government approved organisation that would process applications up until the decision point.

Councils will also be able to offer the fast track planning application service either through competition pilots or potentially through devolution deals. However, decision making on planning applications would remain with the local council to ensure decisions are taken locally and maintain the democratic link between local people and decision makers.

‘Council planning departments play a vital role in getting local house building off the ground, but for too long they have had no incentive to get things done quickly or better, resulting in drawn out applications and local frustration,’ said Communities Secretary Greg Clark.

‘These proposals will be a boost for house builders looking to build much needed new homes for hard working families and first time buyers, and for local people looking to get a planning permission for home improvements through their local council quicker,’ he added.

According to Planning Minister Brandon Lewis many councils are indeed already working hard to improve the services they offer their residents, and across the country people’s satisfaction levels remain high.

‘Now we want to go further by setting out these ambitious proposals to link any future increases in application fees to councils’ performance, and testing more competition including through offering dedicated fast track application services,’ he explained.

Historically councils have had a ‘closed market’ in handling planning applications, with limited incentive for innovation and efficiency. However research studies over the last three decades in the UK and abroad suggest there are cost savings of up to a fifth for competitively tendered or shared services.

A consultation on the competition pilots and fast track services has been published and it also includes proposals to make any future increases in councils’ fees for processing planning applications dependent on their performance in terms of speed and quality of decisions.
Further details on how the pilots will run will be published after the consultation has closed.

Change is needed urgently, according to the Federation of Master Builders (FMB).
‘Across the country small house builders continue to be frustrated by a painfully slow planning process that is holding back the delivery of new homes,’ said FMB chief executive Brian Berry.

‘The numerous sources of delays and inefficiencies in the system impact upon house building rates, and act as a major deterrent to small developers who need to see speedy returns on their investments. Anything which encourages innovation and incentivises councils to deal with applications with greater urgency must be welcome,’ he added.

He pointed out that developers of all sizes have consistently said that they would be willing to pay higher planning application fees, provided the extra resources were ring fenced to deliver a better quality service. Berry said that these proposals provide an avenue to house builders to access speedier planning that will allow them to get on with what they do best which is building homes.

‘Nevertheless, in order to ensure that the broader planning system is working as it should, it’s essential that it’s properly resourced. Local authorities need to be able to invest in their planning departments to put in place, and renew, their local plans,’ he warned.

‘Fees, whether fast track or standard, need to be weighted to ensure that overall the system will be adequately resourced. The system as it stands is creaking. This new approach must be made to work and it cannot come soon enough,’ he added.