Planning – Timescales

Clients often ask; “How long does it take to get Planning and Building Regulation consent?” Unfortunately the answer is not always as straight forward as it may seem.

Most local authority planning offices are run as bureaucratic enforcers with a top down public sector management structure, that has little room for individual thinking or common sense application at the front line.  But enter the world of local authority planning we must, a world where time and common sense take on another dimension. The craziness starts with a Government target for how well a local authority planning services performs, which is all based on how many applications are decided within 8 weeks of registration, with 80% being the target.  I say the craziness starts, as it is worth noting that the target is for % of applications decided, it matters not whether the application is approved or refused as long as the local authority does it within 8 weeks.

However for the clock to start ticking, the local authority must first register the application. In the process of making literally 100s of applications to a dozen different local authorities, I have come across many tricks to delay this registration and trigger point for the 8 weeks to start. The most common of these is the registration clerk asking for additional information on the basis that “we are asking for it because we can and we always ask for it” rather than setting the tick box list aside and looking at the scheme rationally and asking “why do we really need this extra piece of information?” Ok, so extra information is supplied, the paperwork is completed and the Council staff can tick all their boxes to allow the application to be registered and the clock to start ticking towards the 8 week target, soon the applicant can get building right?

Wrong.  If the local authority fails to decide the application in 8 weeks and misses out on a Government brownie point, you would think they would pull out all the stops to decide the application in the immediate weeks that follow. Unfortunately, in the world of local authority planning where tick box mentality rules and widgets are the nature of the game, deciding the application in 19 weeks is just as bad (or as good) as deciding it in 9 weeks and if they can put their energy into someone else’s application that is only 7 weeks old then that becomes the priority.

During this period there is likely to be a dialogue with the local authority planners. However if you want an approval the two way dialogue is normally biased on the side of the planners. Even if the designer has put their heart and soul in to a scheme and the applicant loves the project and has pinned their hopes and dreams on the project going ahead, whilst the neighbours have raised no objections to the proposal, you are unlikely to hear a planner say that they also like it. I can honestly say that experience has never happened on any projects that I have been involved with. The first point of discussion is more likely going to be a criticism of the scheme in some way, or a requirement to provide yet another bit of paper to satisfy a different tick box that hadn’t been thought of earlier.

In short, yes 8 out of 10 planning applications are decided in 8 weeks, no sooner or later. However, the remaining 20% are a different story entirely. It is into this latter category that your project is likely to fall if your dream extension or new house isn’t the same as everyone else’s and it isn’t the mediocrity that the tick box system rewards, whilst blighting so many of our towns and villages.

Fortunately the last couple of decades have seen positive changes in the other regulatory service of Building Control, which until the introduction of competition had a similar reputation as a bureaucratic enforcer. The improvements in the service have been driven firstly by a change in regulation that moved from prescriptive to performance requirements and then the real threat from competition. Today most local authority Building Control offices are customer focused in a way that has driven down turnaround times for processing applications to a few weeks and improved technical support. Building Control Officers offer plain and helpful advice and speak with autonomy without constantly looking over their shoulder wondering whether their line manager will agree.

I have worked on projects that have taken less than two weeks to obtain the regulatory consents, where the work was Permitted Development to well over a year where the planners chose to block the project at every step only to be overruled by the Planning Inspectorate.  The bottom line is the sooner you start planning, the sooner you can start building.

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