Opinion: Making a Pickle of the politics of planning

Eric Pickles is a great populist and masterful at landing a political punch. During Monday’s debate on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, he was being pressed by Hilary Benn. Will he, Benn demanded, name a lagging planning authority that might be brought into special measures under the bill? “I am very happy to name the worst, which is Hackney,” Pickles told MPs with evident glee.

Poor Labour controlled Hackney, named and shamed as the worst planning authority in England. Except it isn’t – by far. The furious mayor of Hackney demanded an apology. He got it, and yesterday Pickles published a correction. He pleaded that had meant to name Haringey. No doubt David Browne, the Haringey mayor, will be demanding a similar apology from the hapless Eric Pickles, because Haringey is actually one of the best performing planning authorities.

According to data collected for the Planning Guarantee, Haringey is one of only eight councils to process 100% of the major planning applications it receives within the required six months. Planning appeal statistics show that Haringey lost only 33% of appeal cases in the second quarter of this year, that’s 2% below the national average. Haringey is not failing; it is one of the most successful planning authorities in England.

On my reckoning, Hartlepool (Labour) and Ribble Valley (Conservative) are the two worst performing councils. In fact, across the spectrum of performance, Labour and Conservative councils are not so far apart. Among the Conservative controlled councils, 31% are top notch, processing applications faster than average and losing fewer appeals than average. Of Labour councils, 28% are in the same category. Among those that perform below average, the gap is wider: 21% of Conservative councils; 28% of Labour councils.

What this tells us about Eric Pickles, and presumably about his staff, is that they do not understand their own statistics. It tells us that Pickles is happy to score political points off the opposition, even when the data does not support his argument. And it tells us he is happy to bring in draconian measures under the Growth and Infrastructure Bill to penalised ‘laggard’ planning authorities without having a clue which councils will be affected by the regime.

How do Lib Dem controlled planning authorities fare? Three of the 12 Lib Dem councils for which data are available are high performers. Two are laggardly, but perhaps not so far behind the rest as to be dragged into Pickle’s special measures.

Eric Pickles’ desire to score political points by attacking poor performing councils is bound to backfire as planning prowess bears no relation to political control. Planning should not be a political business. Sadly Mr Pickles seems more interested in bashing his opponents than bringing in measures that will genuinely help the economy.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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16 Comments

  • I really like the graph. Out of interest, why is the ‘%age within 26 weeks’ used as the benchmark for fast and slow? I think I’d rather just see the average time taken, rather than above or below an arbitrary threshold.

  • Richard Dean 8th Nov '12 - 1:17pm

    If I was a developer I’d want something like six weeks tops. Is there any information on whether the existing slow planning process is holding up development, or do developers find ways to adjust?

  • Bedford (Lib Dem Mayor) is the one just above the ‘e’ of Somerset I think. One of our appeals was called in by Pickles (Free School).

  • (the first ‘e’)

  • Andy Boddington 8th Nov '12 - 1:51pm

    Duncan

    26 weeks is not an arbitrary benchmark. Planning authorities are required to process 95% of major planning applications within 26 weeks (except those applications subject to planning performance agreements where the timetable is negotiated with the developer). Overall, major planning applications must not take more than a year (six months in council and six months in appeal if needed).

    Richard

    Developers do want faster processing but six weeks is hardly practical. The minimum consultation period for a planning application is 21 days alone. Some of these proposals are very large developments – superstores, housing estates and the like. It takes time for councils to prepare reports and to negotiate if necessary. Often the developer does not provide enough data initially.

    The issue is not 26 weeks, and many applications are decided more quickly, but why some councils are so very slow. Some of this is down to staff cuts. But often it is a mystery why it takes so long.

  • Andy Boddington 8th Nov '12 - 2:00pm

    Henry

    Its just beside South Lakeland. 78% of major applications decided with 26 weeks; 42% of appeals lost.

  • If I were a developer (and as an ordinary concerned citizen) I find this obsession with bringing times down very bizarre. Surely the point is that any building (or extension etc) is liable to be there a long time. With that in mind, ensuring that it is the best size shape materials, in the right place anyway, infrastructure etc must be the key to good planning, NOT how fast we can do it. Death to Nicholas Ridleyism, I say.

  • 26 weeks is an arbitrary requirement. Why not 24? The problem is that you may have councils unnecessarily taking 25 weeks to decide something trivial, yet this measure doesn’t capture these.

    The same thing happens in debates over NHS waiting times. There the maximum referral to treatment waiting time is 18 weeks., yet the average waiting time can go down at the same time as the number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks goes up.

  • Richard Church 8th Nov '12 - 10:57pm

    Time taken to determine an application should not be the only judge of a planning authority’s competence. What about the quality of the decision once its taken? How well does the decision match up to standards of sustainability, design, land use, community safety etc.? The only measure of quality being used is the number of decisions upheld on appeal, but that says nothing about poor approvals given with inadequate conditions.

    Time taken to reach a decision matters for a few weeks. A poor decision leading to a poor development matters for years and years.

  • Andy Boddington 9th Nov '12 - 8:22am

    Duncan

    It beats me why some minor applications take so long to process. But just sticking with 26 weeks, there seems no reason at all why councils should not decide all minor applications within 26 weeks. Yet only 44% of councils get 99% or 100% through in six months.

    Fifteen councils fail to process 95% of minor applications in six months, a pretty miserable record when we are talking about trees, minor house extensions, shop fronts and so on. The worst performer is Conservative controlled Stratford on Avon which fails to get one in ten minor applications through in six months (and loses 47% of appeals).
    By politics the laggardly fifteen are: 6 Conservative; 3 Labour; 1 Lib Dem (Cambridge); 4 no overall control; 1 national park

    I suspect that the failure to process minor applications is mostly down to lack of staff. The failure to process major applications is more complex. Staff resources is an issue, but so is the quality of the planning team and their ability to negotiate larger applications.

  • Andy Boddington 9th Nov '12 - 11:26am

    Hi Judith

    I’d be interested to heard why Bradford might be considered for special measures. I have it informally categorised as a high performer.

    It processes 83% of major planning applications in 26 weeks, below the target of 95% but above the average performance of 77%. Minor applications are fine too; 99% in 26 weeks. It only loses 25% of appeals, that very good against the average of 35%

    It may be that its performance is plummeting and that is not yet reflected in the communities department statistics.

    Andy

  • Andy Boddington 9th Nov '12 - 2:26pm

    There is now a bit of clarity on what ministers are proposing. In answer to a written question from Hilary Benn, planning minister Nick Boles yesterday apologised for the Hackney error.

    “Notwithstanding, Haringey has the worst performance for deciding major planning applications in England over the last two years (March 2010 to March 2012), with only 17% of major applications determined on time. This is one such metric that Ministers will be considering”

    So it is now clear that Boles and Pickles are looking at a 13-week processing time – this is the idealistic target for set processing major applications – not the 26-week period in the Planning Guarantee as was suggested earlier. This is very significant. Just 58% of major applications were completed in 13 weeks in 2011/12 compared to 77% in 26 weeks.

    The critical point is that a major application is not necessarily very major; for example, it can be a little as ten houses. But it can be as large as 2,000 home urban extension or huge in urban regeneration projects which cannot be satisfactorily processed in 13 weeks. (In practice the very large schemes are, or should be, covered by planning performance agreements that specify a timetable for decision-making, and which will be excluded from the new performance regime.)

    The mix of big and small projects will undoubtedly affect performance. I will re-examine the data in the light of Boles’ written answer – but that may have to wait a some days until I can extend my database.

  • Richard Dean 9th Nov '12 - 10:19pm

    What local planning authorities ought to be doing, surely, in cooperation with others, is identifying development opportunities proactively, and developing and publishing general plans in advance of applications?

    That way local democracy might be better served, by keeping everyone informed and allowing objections to be raised and addressed at relative leisure. Also, the planning application process can be streamlined and be less traumatic for both local people and developers.

    Any development alters property values in the vicinity. Pre-planning like this might avoid people buying a property and then finding the value goes down because of an unwelcome development. Equally, once a system like this has been going for a while, it might perhaps result in less excessive profiteering .

  • David Allen 9th Nov '12 - 11:39pm

    The commonest reason for planning delays is quite simple. The planning authority quickly responds informally to the developer and tells him he has a choice. He can either stick with the plans he has submitted, and have them refused, or else he can go away and think about the concerns which the authority have identified, in which case he might get approved.

    The developer then takes ages to revise the plans and resubmit. Sometimes this takes several goes, and finally, a plan that is streets better than the original one gets approval.

    Then the developer goes and whinges that it is the local authority which has been slow, bureaucratic and inefficient. He does that in order to hide from his head office the fact that he is the person who has been slow and caused the delays.

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