Tim Mycock

Could planning permission potholes be stalling the housing market recovery?

Last year, chancellor Philip Hammond announced that a total of £3.7bn would be spent to address Britain’s housing crisis, with the aim of building an additional 140,000 homes by 2020 for rent and sale.

This sentiment was backed up by the Conservative government’s housing white paper, which deemed the housing crisis to be “one of the greatest barriers to progress in Britain today” and promised to instigate a “comprehensive approach… [to] tackle failures at every point in the system”.

Yet despite this national generational shortfall in housing, the unpredictability, inconsistency and complexity of Britain’s planning system continues to ruin the chances of an improved housing climate for the UK. With communities secretary Sajid Javid coming forward last week to claim that some councils had an up-to-date plan, but were not being honest about the level of housing they needed for their area, we seem to be stuck in a viscous housing cycle.

Constant changes in national and local planning policies for instance – along with unnecessary consent conditions and complicated land deals – are imposing unrealistic terms and time constraints on housing development.

It is an amalgamation of the above which is causing continued problems with the cost and availability of finance and land, referenced in the recent report by the National House Building Council (NHBC).

Putting these delays into perspective, over a third of housebuilders are now waiting more than a year to get the green light. Placing these timeframes in the housing timeline, almost 80% have likewise experienced a significant increase in planning application fees in the past two years.

Due to the difference between ‘outline permission’ (where planners approve land for housing) and ‘detailed permission’ (when builders can actually start work), once planning has been ‘approved’, there is often a significant delay before builders can actually begin work on site.

Essentially, there are numerous planning conditions attached to planning consents that require additional information to be submitted prior to starting on site and most of the time the information requested is unnecessary or regurgitated information from earlier on in the process.

To rectify this stalling in permissions, government ministers have recently suggested that developers who do not build their homes quickly enough could have their land seized by local authorities. But if the proposed two-year deadline were counted from the granting of outline permission, many projects would be impossible to deliver, thus stalling the process further with the need for numerous applications if the project in question times out.

Part of the problem, it seems, lies in the constant changing of national and local planning policies, which is causing inconsistences in the planning processes. Too often, a housebuilder will receive positive advice from one case officer, only to receive completely different advice from a replacement officer.

Taking this further, laborious local plan processes likewise leave uncertainty in the interpretation of national planning policies. Initially ambiguous or ‘grey’, national policies result in too many planning applications being determined via planning appeal – which can take up to a year to resolve. Additionally, when neighbouring councils operate with different policies and timeframes altogether, the dislocation is stretched even further.

While the planning system might, in theory, work on a national level, it is failing locally.

Facing the broken housing market consequently requires a national solution and the political will to deliver this. It is time that MPs do all they can do to streamline the planning process, rather than providing more obstacles for developers.

As it stands, the biggest hindrance facing housebuilders is not funding or land, but rather the ‘deeply frustrating delays’ involved in the planning system. These planning permission potholes are, quite simply, driving small developers away from the lucrative housing industry, and stalling the recovery of the UK housing market as a whole.

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