Extension change could free up case officers

Government plans announced today to relax home and small business planning extension rules would be 'like relieving brain surgeons of responsibilities to treat bumps on the head', according to property advisor McBains Cooper.

Mark Leeson, director of design at McBains Cooper, with offices in Manchester, London and Oxford, said council planning case officers are bogged down with masses of small and petty applications and disputes, delaying fewer but far bigger economy-changing developments and projects.

He added: "There's going to be a collective sigh of relief in council planning departments across the country if these proposals are brought on to the statute books – the current planning process can be likened to using brain surgeons to treat bumps on the head.

"Case officers are completely swamped by home and small business extension applications, and that is likely to grow as people and businesses extend rather than move – and it's no secret that many local authorities have been cutting headcount as well to potentially compound the issue.

"Taking house and shop extensions off their workload will have a massive impact on re-focusing case officers' efforts. It'll be a double benefit: small scale projects will simply take off, case officers will be freed up to drive progress on the big projects which will have a truly positive economic impact. It's basic business: the faster the rate of turnover, the greater the income, the more reinvestment in the economy.

"But, most critically, we still need to see and encourage a step-change in pro-activity and pro-development stances adopted by Local Authorities, and a greater drive to balance the need for housing with wider community interests.

"While the proposals are being described as 'emergency' and temporary measures to boost growth, they will, as a result of the need to consult and make changes to the law as it stands, all take time which the industry simply doesn't have. The NPPF already contains provisions that require and stress the need for the scale of obligations imposed on developers not to threaten schemes' viability; this now just needs to be worked through and tested on the ground.

"But the announcement, would not actually appear to offer much that could be called 'new'. The Harman Report (Local Housing Delivery Group) published in June 2012 set out some very clear and sensible advice on viability testing in relation to Local Plans.

"However, the so-called new proposals – whilst focusing on viability – also seem to overlook the major issue, which remains the lack of available bank funding.

"But viability and Section 106 are complex issues, not just a question of the percentage of affordable housing incorporated into proposed developments, but matters such as density, energy targets, standards generally, the availability and funding of new infrastructure, cost of finance, acceptable returns for developers, and construction and material costs.

"In the final analysis, we still need to work with Local Authorities. What the NPPF means in terms of viability, and revisiting existing consents with a new approach to considerations around viability, is key to unlocking sites that currently don't work."

The Government also announced another package to free up housing development, allowing developers to reduce affordable housing below levels normally required by local authorities provided they can demonstrate this is needed to make a scheme viable.

Gary Halman, partner at HOW Planning, advises national house builders and major landowners. He said: "Although we'll need to see the detail, this sounds like a really positive step in enabling development which has stalled for viability reasons to get back on track. Often affordable housing is the biggest cost in a Section 106 agreement, but local authorities have been reluctant to accept that levels originally agreed when permission was granted may not now be deliverable. This sends a clear message that getting new homes built is the top priority, even if it means fewer affordable homes – though extra money from Government is being put forward to compensate.

"It's also good news that major residential and commercial schemes are to be given a higher priority and fast tracked through planning. That doesn't mean they will be subject to any less scrutiny, but we must ensure big schemes that can deliver homes and new jobs are fast-tracked and aren't simply stuck in the system. Developers will welcome this initiative."

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