Planning for a Pain in the ‘Ologies’

21st January 2017

The lack of housing remains one of the things which seems to be a constant political football but one which there is cross-party acceptance that it is a chronic issue.

There are a number of problems contributing to the undersupply of houses, none of which are easy to fix. An easy win seems to be to blame the planners for slow delivery of applications through the system. Previous measures designed to speed up the decision making on major decisions have had some limited effect, with a reported 83% of major applications being decided in time versus 79% last year. Even ignoring manipulation of the process to make the figures look better, the increase is small and the speed of approval from County Hall is constantly touted as a major factor holding up delivery and a constant source of frustration.

As part of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently before Parliament, further proposals are being put forward to improve the process. These include partially doing away with pre-commencement conditions. These dreaded conditions require a developer to do something to the satisfaction of the Council before development can start. They usually relate to archaeology, ecology or some other type of ology. The problem with ologies is that they invariably cost a lot of money to sort out and landowners get saddled with some significant costs before they can start work, yet alone a delay.

The proposals before Parliament include a moratorium on Councils imposing pre-commencement conditions without the consent of an Applicant. This, on the face of it sounds like it would be a good idea. However, our thoughts are that it has the potential to exacerbate a worrying trend for more information to be requested before an application is decided.

It was previously common practice for detailed archaeology, ecology, contaminated land (couldn’t think of an ology for that one) and hydrology (drainage) etc to be secured by pre-commencement planning conditions after permission had been granted. There is a distinct benefit in this, in that the risk of planning permission not being granted had been taken away. It is now more common for this information to be required before an application is approved, or frequently before permission is applied for, even for outline applications. When the risk of planning officer’s opinions, unpredictable planning committee votes based on political agendas and a dizzying array of other factors which can get in the way of planning permission being granted is taken into account, it can be unpalatable to spend tens of thousands of pounds at risk. On large sites this can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds outlaid up front, but often it can be just as uncomfortable to spend tens of thousands to satisfy the Ologists on smaller scale development.

Experience tells us the best approach is to understand the site specific constraints very early in the process. Sometimes, by also doing some work early in the process there can be enough willing shown to avoid the large bills until later in the process by doing enough to satisfy the Ologists’ curiosity. Understanding the site and its context are vital to negotiation.

The measures in the current Bill around planning conditions need to be considered in context of other mounting costs for applicants. The George F. White Planning team are busy at a number of Local Plan Public Inquiries at the moment. Looming on the horizon after the Local Plans come on line is the Community Infrastructure Levy, another form of development tax on top of section 106 contributions in most instances. Starter Homes also appear to be now gaining momentum, which may be in addition to affordable housing. A strategy to deal with the Ologists may therefore be money well spent and vital to reducing the risk of money outlaid early in the planning process.

Richard Garland is a Partner and Head of Planning & Development at George F. White, to discuss any planning issues Richard can be contacted on 07738 196051 or email richardgarland@georgefwhite.co.uk

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