As the saying goes, ‘time is money’; longer determination periods mean higher professional fees and holding costs. All of which add up to erode the viability of a development site. Because of this, the length of time that it takes to get planning permission from the Council is an important issue for developers.
In this deep dive, we take a look at Councils’ self-reported determination figures – and how they compare to the planning application data we’ve pulled from LandInsight. And, more importantly, how this could impact where you chose to build your next development.
Why are planning determination periods important?
Planning application determination periods are one of the metrics on which the performance of local planning authorities is judged. If determination periods are consistently longer than the required threshold for the type of application, then there is a risk that determination powers could be removed and handed to the Planning Inspectorate as part of a package of ‘Special Measures’.
According to the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG): “The statutory time limits for applications for planning permission are set out in article 34 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure (England) Order 2015 (as amended). They are 13 weeks for applications for major development,10 weeks for applications for technical details consent, and (from 1 August 2021) applications for public service infrastructure development, and 8 weeks for all other types of development (unless an application is subject to an to an Environmental Impact Assessment, in which case a 16 week limit applies).
Where a planning application takes longer than the statutory period to decide, and an extended period has not been agreed with the applicant, the government’s policy is that the decision should be made within 26 weeks at most in order to comply with the ‘planning guarantee’.”
We have been looking at this issue regionally across England, as part of our regional reports, and we have been providing a summary of the average time taken for each LPA to determine Major and Non-Major planning applications over a five year period within our LPA Factsheets.
Having a clear idea of the likely duration of the determination of your planning application when you start the process should be a great help, right from the beginning.
What have we studied?
The Department of Leveling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC) publishes data on planning determination periods. This is sourced from individual Council’s self-reported determination statistics, collated by DLUHC, and published for each quarter. This source of information is generally taken to be the baseline for information relating to planning application determination periods, but is that the whole story?
Within LandInsight you have access to information about current and historic planning applications, and you can use this function to track existing and newly submitted planning applications within a given area.
From this information, we are able to see the date that each planning application is validated (i.e. the date that the Council decides that the application is ‘valid’, in that it has all the necessary information to allow the assessment period to commence), and the date that each planning application is determined (i.e. the date that the Notice of Determination is issued by the Council following a decision).
Why is this important? Although most Councils are reporting planning application determination periods that are within the statutory periods outlined in the PPG, we’ve learned that on the ground the experience can be quite different - with long waits for decisions being quite common.
We wanted to check how closely the self-reported statistics from DLUHC correspond with the information that we hold within LandInsight.
To get to the bottom of this, we have compared the DLUHC planning application determination periods data with the data that we hold within LandInsight to see how long planning applications are really taking to be decided, and by how much this reality departs from the reported statistics.
What have we found?
We have found a significant discrepancy between the figures reported by the councils to DLUHC and the actual lengths of time taken to decide applications.
Our research shows that, from the local authorities that have assessed more than five major planning applications (any application involving 10 or more residential units, dwellings on a site with an area of 0.5 hectares or more, 1,000 sq. m or more of new commercial floorspace or sites with an area of more than 1 hectare) those that have been using Extensions of Time most extensively in their application assessment are as follows:1. Bolsover
2. Telford and Wrekin
3. North East Derbyshire
4. East Riding of Yorkshire
7. Tunbridge Wells
8. Mid Sussex
9. Epping Forest
We know this because it is in these councils that the difference is largest between the reported determination period (i.e. how long the Council says that it takes to determine an application) and the actual determination period (i.e. the actual number of weeks between the validation and the determination of a planning application).
In Bolsover, for example, the reported statistics state that 100% of major planning applications were determined within the 13 weeks allowed. In reality, 40% of these applications took over a year to determine.
A note on these sets of data
When you’re comparing data, consistency is key. Unfortunately the way that planning application data is currently available in England means that it is anything but consistent. In our analysis, we have tried to look just at applications for one or more dwelling, excluding householder applications (i.e. extensions to existing houses).
The data that DLUHC supplies is self-reported by Councils, which means that there is a large variation between the way that different LPAs report types of application back to DLUHC.
We have compared this to data that is available in LandInsight - mostly extracted from LPA’s own planning portals. Unfortunately, there is also some lack of consistency here. The data in LandInsight displays the same information that the councils hold about each application, but where they don’t provide data on the type of application, we have not been able to query that in this analysis.
The impact of this is that there are approximately 50 councils for which we have not been able to run a direct comparison for - even though the data is there.
The old saying that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ applies here to some extent. Many councils, and therefore the Government, are relying on tenuous records about planning applications - and much could be done by the Government to improve this.
Luckily, at LandTech we have a pretty good data team who can help make sense of these numbers and allow for a more direct comparison.
Problem with Extensions of Time
As you can see from the data comparison, the anecdotal evidence - that planning applications are taking much longer than is being reported - is backed up by the numbers; but why is this?
When a planning application is being determined, the Council officers know they are judged on the duration of their assessment and, when they are nearing the end of the period allowed for this application (8, 13, or 16 weeks), they will normally ask the applicant to allow an ‘Extension of Time’.
If approved in writing, this extension to the time period allows the officer more time to decide the application. It can be done multiple times for the same application, and here’s the clincher, when the application is finally decided - provided that the decision is within an agreed Extension of Time - the application is recorded as being within the time allowed by the PPG.
This means that an application that should take 13 weeks to decide can, in practice, take much longer than this; but when this is reported in the official statistics the application is reported as taking the prescribed 13 weeks.
Why is this a problem? As a developer, if you were to believe the statistics from DLUHC, you would think that most major planning applications are decided within 13 weeks. This may lead you to make your financial assumptions (professional fees, project timelines, construction programmes, sales campaigns, etc.) on this basis.
What does this mean for you?
Our analysis has shown that the determination of planning applications can take significantly longer than is being reported in the official statistics. This won’t come as a shock to anyone who has recent experience of dealing with the planning system, but the statistics might make for hard reading for anyone preparing to submit a planning application.
The longer it takes to get a planning permission from the council the greater the holding costs and professional fees for an applicant. The true cost of our under-funded public sector is in plain sight for most applicants, but it’s been disguised by the official statistics and the use of ‘extensions of time’ by local authorities.
Forewarned is forearmed and we have tried to provide you with the most up to date information about how long planning applications are taking in different Councils around the country. We have provided this within our regional data reports and our LPA Data Sheets, all of which are available within our Reports Hub.