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Time waits for no plans

The 'success' of planning targets, so trumpeted by government, may be down to local authorities automatically rejecting applications simply to meet their goals - sending good schemes back to the drawing board, writes David Taylor

An investigation by the AJ has revealed that much-trumpeted planning targets set by the government in order to speed up the system are, in fact, doing the reverse: local authorities across the country are automatically rejecting applications in order to comply with the time limits. Consultants and architects have slammed the 'scandal', claiming that a resulting higher level of appeals is simply causing a logjam further down the chain, and in the process perfectly good, well-designed schemes are getting stopped in their tracks.

Consultants and architects claim that some local authorities have been rejecting major planning applications in their scores in order to comply with the much-heralded 13-week time limit for making a decision, stipulated by deputy prime minister John Prescott. The targets state that authorities should turn around 60 per cent of major planning applications inside 13 weeks. This was one of the goals imposed by government on 1 April last year, ironically to add a little zip into the planning process.

One planning consultant, who did not want to be named, said that Reading Borough Council's publicly available records showed that about '50 or 60' applications had been rejected straight away because the authority was clearly lagging behind in the numbers it needed to process. 'That was around six months ago, ' said the consultant.

'What Reading is doing is not unique. But I attend around half of Reading's planning committee meetings and I know from previous experience that it has now approved several of those, but there's still a large percentage of refusals. It's a scandal.'

Robert Adam of the RIBA's planning policy group reports that, in his experience, this practice is certainly not limited to Reading.

'[Planners] tend to refuse things quicker and don't register them in order to keep up with their targets. It's exactly the wrong thing but no amount of targets will make a leopard change its spots.'

Negotiation time is also cut down, says Adam, which is contrary to government's wishes to see better design, as often the process of achieving that is a finely balanced series of discussions. 'Bureaucracy clogs things up.'

To further complicate things, planning officers are having 'enormous' problems with PPG 3's requirement for density levels at a time of housing shortage, again impacting on their definitions of local character and the time needed to tend to applications. And the government's desire to have three months rather than six for appeals, enshrined in its Green Paper, will mean even more of a logjam when more applicants lodge immediate appeals. Adam says the only answer is a complete rethink of the planning culture to make it more development-friendly.

How does this anecdotal evidence stack up against official data? Every six months, Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister publishes a long series of statistics on planning performance. Usually, it comes complete with a gushing quote from a minister, praising the success of the target scheme in bringing forth quicker decisions.

True to form the most recent issue, published on 27 June, claimed 'more planning applications are being dealt with at greater speeds', with councils processing applications 2 per cent faster in 2002/3 than they did in the previous year. That, the ODPM's press people went on, was despite an increase to 167,000 applications.

As a national average, local planning authorities were deciding 43 per cent of major applications within the magic 13 weeks, and 54 per cent of minor planning applications and 72 per cent of other applications inside eight weeks. (The definition of 'major' is 10 or more dwellings, or office, industrial or retail schemes that are over 1,000m 2of floorspace or 1ha of site area. ) Sadly, however, they are supposed to hit 60 per cent, not 43 per cent, of major schemes in 13 weeks; 65 per cent, not 54 per cent, of minor ones inside eight weeks; and 80 per cent, not 72 per cent, of all other applications inside eight weeks. So, even with the 'help' they give it, planners are not really achieving 'improved planning performance' in statistical terms, so far.

Planning minister Keith Hill commented: 'I am encouraged by these figures, which reflect the hard work of planners. A faster, more efficient planning service benefits everyone in the community, whether their application is for a home extension or a new hospital.'At least it would if it was happening.

One of the problems is that in this system, 'improved' performances are linked to cash.

A planning delivery grant of £350 million is available to local authorities - £130 million of it in the next financial year - dependent on them making 'improvements in speed and quality of delivery'. In addition, the Audit Commission will be scrutinising those authorities that are lagging behind.

And yet, despite these incentives, only 49 of 362 authorities - less than one seventh - decided 60 per cent of their major applications inside the 13 weeks.Of those, only in the City of London and Liverpool were the decisions made of any real size. Reading made 104 'major' decisions in the year to 31 March 2003, though just 31.7 per cent of them were within the allotted 13-week schedule. But that was twice the speed of the year before.

Davis Rose, director of communication and association at the Royal Town Planning Institute, strongly doubts the authority is rejecting without assessing, as he says it will get 'clobbered' at appeal. But he conjectures that most planners are trying to go for the 'good practice' option, given the government-imposed target culture, of holding pre-submission discussions. 'That is to be encouraged, ' he said. 'Pre-submission discussions are critical. The government has taken the approach of setting targets - they're how local authorities will be funded in future.'

David Ellworthy, Reading's head of planning, said that planning authorities nationally are adapting artificially to the targets system, but that it was 'totally unrealistic' for government to expect major decisions to be made in the time frame because of Section 106 agreements and lawyers.When Ellworthy arrived at the department three years ago it had been 'named and shamed' for poor performance. It had to clean up its act or risk 'intervention'. So, like other departments, Ellworthy admits to putting more resources into encouraging preapplication discussions, but also to making early refusals. 'It doesn't help the poor developer, ' he said. What would help the system would be if the government wanted resolutions for approval in the time frames.

Brian Waters of Boisot Waters Cohen says the habit of making rejections and calling for reapplications was happening in Hackney three years ago, though things have tightened up since. And 18 months ago he was called by the ODPM's statistics department, which had noticed a spurt in the number of resubmissions. It was puzzled. 'I said I could understand it very well. There were a lot of applications where, if they showed a slight imperfection or difficulty with objectors, they were not calling back the applicant - they were simply refusing it inside eight weeks.'

Waters claims the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (whose record on major decisions over 13 weeks has worsened since last year) is still doing this. 'It's the way in which a highly centralised government imposes tougher performance targets and then the system responds by adjusting. Of course it's not right. It's outrageous.'

Andrew Morris, a former local authority planner and now strategic land director for housebuilder Bewley Homes, defends Reading as one of the better planning authorities he deals with for its work on speeding up the pre-application side of things. He is surprised it scores so low - it was ranked 277th out of 362 authorities in planning minister Hill's national charts. But nationally, he says, the introduction of targets represents a 'mixed bag' for quality end results.

Some authorities, Morris claims, are simply saying to applicants that if any element of their application is incomplete, if the scheme appears to be in conflict with its surroundings or if density levels appear on the low side, they should withdraw their application and start again. In this way, what appears to be a decision inside eight weeks in fact often takes twice or three times that long.

'I think it's fairly early to say, and at least [the targets] have given an indication of when we will get decisions, ' says Morris. 'But the quality of those decisions hasn't settled - there are definitely decisions made simply to get it through on time.We hear of some applications being refused after being referred back to the applicants for spurious reasons.'

Rather than allow applicants extra time for unforeseen elements like archaeological matters, councils are simply saying 'withdraw your application and resubmit or we'll refuse it' - in effect, resetting the clock.

Some authorities' decisions to attend to these new strictures by dealing more at the pre-application stage often serve only to put more pressure on under-resourced departments and planners' time. 'I can sympathise with that, having been at Kingston-uponThames, ' says Morris. 'Now officers are being told to restrict the time they have to meet you, pre-application.'

Morris, like many others, is finding that planning targets, trumpeted by the government for speeding and improving the planning system, are not quite what they are cracked up to be. 'It's the old saying, ' he says, 'if you want an answer quickly, it's no.'

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