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21/07/2020

Simplify changes to planning permissions to boost construction sector

Words:
Drawing up a plan

The system for amending planning permissions is too complex and confusing, argues Sarah Bevan. A new approach, developed by the Planning Officers Society, provides a solution

When planning permission has been granted for a project, this is just RIBA Stage 3 (out of eight) for an architect’s design process. There will be further technical surveys and mitigation to satisfy planning conditions, the design team will need to work up much more detailed construction drawings, and in the time taken to get the permission implemented there may be changes in market demand that need to be addressed to maintain the project’s appeal to prospective purchasers and tenants. In other words, changes to a permission are regularly an inevitable part of delivering a permitted scheme.

At the moment we have a complex and confusing system whereby a developer can apply for minor changes through a S96A application (‘non material amendments’) or for more significant changes via a S73 application (‘minor material amendments’) provided the spirit of the original permission is not undermined. It has always been at the discretion of the local planning authority which type of application should be submitted and how far a developer can push things before needing to submit a whole new application.

"It has always been at the discretion of the local planning authority which type of application should be submitted and how far a developer can push things"

The current regime was introduced in 2009, following the financial crash, as a temporary stopgap and has never been updated. Subsequent case law has restricted the process by which such changes can be made, and applicants now follow a convoluted route via S96A and S73 to change anything that affects the description of development. This wastes time, local authority resources and also confuses local communities at a time when it has been widely reported that their trust in developers is low. Meanwhile, there has also been an increasing trend to make the description of development on planning permissions more and more detailed, which further reduces the scope to use S73.

We have been working with the Planning Officers Society (POS) to demonstrate that this is a cross-sector issue that needs to be properly addressed. The urgency for reform is heightened as we head into a severe economic recession and the need to amend approved schemes increases to ensure their deliverability, be that to maintain a scheme’s viability, re-purpose retail floorspace or simply substitute a material that can no longer be sourced.

We support the POS proposal for a single combined application process to deal with amendments as summarised in their 6th manifesto paper From concept to construction: making the system more flexible (Pdf). A key feature is that each decision should result in the issuing of a new planning permission, whilst retaining the original application reference, and each new decision notice would clearly set out the timeline of cumulative amendments. This is simply not clear from the current system.  

In addition to making the process quicker, easier and more transparent, other benefits include making it easier to follow a scheme’s planning history and also retaining a permission’s reference. This would allow the transfer of any legal agreement to the amended permission, thus negating the need to always prepare a deed of variation. Where the terms of that agreement have to be changed, a new agreement would of course be needed.

"These reforms would keep planning permissions alive and boost construction activity to support the development industry’s recovery from Covid-19"

Whilst fundamental reform is our aim, at the very least we believe that planning application forms should be amended to have two descriptions of development:

1) A high-level description using development parameters for inclusion on the decision notice, which would be supplemented by a planning condition containing the detailed development metrics that could then be easily amended through S73

2) A more detailed description for use on consultation correspondence including all the development metrics so that the community and other stakeholders fully understand what is proposed. Best practice guidance should also be issued by MHCLG on drafting descriptions of development.

These reforms would help the planning system run more smoothly in the long term. More pressingly, they would keep planning permissions alive and boost construction activity to support the development industry’s recovery from Covid-19 and its vital contribution to the wider economic recovery. 

Sarah Bevan is programme director for planning at London First

Photo credit l Shutterstock

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