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Blog: Improve councils’ skills and resources to avoid more legislation

Nick Boles asked the development industry to suggest how the planning system can be improved without new legislation. 

It is simple; improve the skills and resources of planning authorities and change the culture.
The government loved its headline-grabbing reforms that would sweep away the inefficiencies in the system and make it a driver of growth: the scrapping of thousands of pages of guidance and their replacement with a new National Planning Policy Framework, a Localism Act, neighbourhood planning, new permitted development rights and Community Infrastructure Levy.
These changes have had a significant impact on what developers can get permission for, and where, but the mechanics of obtaining permission remain largely the same. An application for planning permission is made to a local planning authority (LPA), it consults, officers write a report and the committee resolves to grant permission subject to a s106 agreement. This is where the nightmare begins and where the headline-grabbing reforms make no difference.

"This is where the nightmare begins and where the headline-grabbing reforms make no difference"

It’s not all the LPA’s fault. The reality of development deals makes deducing title more complicated, with the applicant only getting title to the site after permission is granted, meaning that landowners and their lenders have to be a party to the s106 agreement. The key issue for the LPA is that the permission cannot be implemented without compliance with the s106 obligations. But safeguarding the public interest often becomes an inflexible insistence that owners of parcels of land on the periphery of a site, on which the development could in no way be built, must also be a party to the agreement.
Further delay is caused by the number of instructing officers whom the authority’s lawyer has to deal with. Those officers don’t always have time to give instructions quickly. When they do, the result can be unexpected. The committee’s decision may have provided a broad list of obligations the planning agreement must contain leaving significant room for negotiation after the committee. Officers may change their minds and what the applicant thinks was agreed before the committee meeting changes. 
There are determined authorities that make development happen. They secure a pragmatic s106 wish list, an eye on viability and a recognition that developers must be able to fund and operate developments. Only when such authorities are in the majority can any government say it has revolutionised the system. LPAs must negotiate and accept risk to get things done. The “policy says no” approach must go.
Marnix Elsenaar is a partner and head of planning for Addleshaw Goddard LLP


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