NJL Consulting: No surprise in resi delays

Michael Hunt

Rob White, partner at Manchester-based NJL Consulting, has said results found in a Government report over delays in residential planning applications are not surprising.

The Government's housing and planning adviser National Housing and Planning Advice Unit said only a fifth of major residential developments receive planning consent within the Government's 13-week target for determining planning applications.

White said: "The results of this research are not surprising. There are a number of reasons the planning process is taking too long.

"One of the key reasons is that despite all the constructive pre-application meetings being held with the Local Planning Authorities to ensure that applications satisfy their requirements and they are fully informed about the submission documents in advance, there are no enforceable deadlines for statutory consultees to respond.

"The responses from statutory consultees are often late, and clearly 'cut and pasted' standard paragraphs responses, where it is obvious that the submissions have not been read or considered by appropriately qualified and experienced staff.

"The planning officers are then in a tricky position as although they themselves may be satisfied with the proposals, they are obliged to consider the Statutory responses and refer these to the applicant. The result is further unpredictable delays to the process whilst information is exchanged or meetings are arranged, when a prompt and proper consideration of the submission documents would have avoided this or at least narrowed down the issues for further consideration.

"Frustratingly, consultees tend to respond on a whole range of issues for which they are not necessarily the responsible organisation or do not have the requisite in-house expertise, this leads to more issues being raised which could be avoided if consultees focussed on their prescribed remit.

"This remains one of the biggest problems even when Planning Performance Agreements are in place that formally include the statutory consultees in the pre-application process and set out agreed programmes for the post-application phase.

"The applicant's only recourse is to appeal for non-determination, incurring further delay and cost, to force the programme forward. Frustratingly once this process is entered into it is often the case that the statutory consultees withdraw their objections or issues for concern and decline to appear at the inquiry, leaving the Local Planning Authorities and the applicant to bear the cost and resource implications when between them they considered the issues resolvable in the first place.

"Alongside the delays themselves the issue of costs, the variation in these between LPAs and the lack of accountability over them is increasingly becoming a cause for concern for applicants.

"On the one hand pre-application discussions are encouraged and Planning Performance Agreements promoted for the larger schemes, but some local authorities are now seeking to charge ridiculous amounts for these meetings of up to £1,000 each. However, there is no accountability if the applicant considers that the meetings are not being properly prepared for, staffed or agreed actions undertaken by the local authority. This is on top of hefty application fees which for some of the larger applications NJL is managing that cover more than one local authority are already over £180,000.

"It also needs to be remembered that consent is not granted until the Section 106 Agreements have been signed. So even where the application has been approved by committee in the target timeframe, S106 Agreements usually involve lengthy discussions and delay the process even further. In some circumstances the LPA is using the S106 process to stall progress for several years.

"We aim to manage this by minimising the content of S106 Agreements and making use of appropriate conditions shared in advance with the LPA, but third party interests for which there is no accountable deadlines often frustrate this process further."

NJL Consulting, based on Wilmslow Road in Didsbury, is currently advising on more than 14,000 residential units across the UK comprising major projects of up to 4,500 units. NJL's role includes project managing the planning process with the aim of providing clients with increased certainty over programme and budgets leading to a planning decision.

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