What is wrong with UK planning and who is to blame?
Most homeowners have no real interest in the planning system, as such. It is complicated and bureaucratic and, unless you are a planning geek like me, very boring. However, if you want to alter or extend your home, you need to engage with it in some way. Even if you expect that the works you plan to carry out will not need planning permission, it is best to speak to the planners in order to establish that fact. Most homeowners will interact with the planning system at one point or another – this book arms you with the information you will need to make that interaction as painless as possible.
In this introduction, we explore how the planning system works and why it so poorly serves applicants, case officers (not always the villains), and the wider general public. The flaws in the British planning system present homeowners with challenges, but also with opportunities. Once you understand that planning is far from perfect, you will be much better placed to avoid the pitfalls and exploit the opportunities.
What is the Planning System?
Simply put, the planning system places restrictions on what you may do with your property where your actions may have harmful effects on the wider community.
It is obvious that some kind of control is necessary. Our little island is more cramped than many other places, we build our homes in high densities, and our long and glorious history has also left us a legacy of beautiful buildings. It is not just that our buildings are old, but our forebears grouped them in very pleasing arrangements – think of the symmetry of a row of identical Victorian terraced houses or a scattering of stone cottages in a Cotswolds village. It does make sense that we shouldn’t be allowed to build what we like, where we like and it is true that this control should probably be more intrusive than in other countries, such as the United States, which have more space and, let’s be honest, uglier buildings.
But the strange thing is that the British planning system isn’t really very British. Our political and economic philosophy is essentially liberal and laissez-faire – we are a free-wheeling capitalist society wedded to the power of market forces. Excessive regulation is usually assumed to create distortions and inefficiencies. It is not clear how we ended up with a planning system that is so exceptionally rigid. Britons consider property rights to be sacrosanct, but at the same time your rights to do what your like with your own land and property are limited by planning controls. There is very little you can do to your home without needing express planning permission.
In most other countries, land is zoned and loose controls are put in place to limit the worst excesses of unrestricted development, but a lot of development does not need planning permission. Most small alterations do not need consent at all. The British planning system, however, is one of heavy state intervention in even the most minor alterations to a home.
The British media is endlessly critical of the planning system, but it tends to focus on large-scale schemes. Sometimes, the planners are unfairly maligned – the dithering over a third runway at Heathrow is the fault of indecisive politicians, not the planning system. I also think the planning system works reasonably well for large housing developments. The fact that it delivers monotonous estates of bland houses may be more a function of development economics and the limited imagination of large developers than the failings of council planners.
From my point of view, the main problem with the planning system is how poorly it serves the humble householder or small developer. The main reason for this is that these groups do not have the knowledge or the resources that larger developers marshal and deploy in order to get their applications through. Case officers (and the wider planning system) take advantage of this asymmetry in knowledge and power.
I have always been fascinated by small-scale planning – how householders extend their homes and how small sites are developed. Which is lucky, because that is all I was allowed to do when I worked in local government.
Pity the Planners
The tragedy of the UK planning system is that it locks up its planners in a tedious prison of single-storey rear extensions.
Spatial planning is about creating places. We planners are trained to understand how society and space interact and are told we will be creating and improving communities. We are taught to think big. Then we graduate, join a council planning department, and begin thinking very, very small.
According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 90 percent of all planning applications are for minor applications (extensions and small commercial developments). The bulk of a council’s planning team is made up of case officers who deal with householder applications: a daily, dispiriting diet of single-storey rear extensions and dormer windows. The UK planning system sucks the soul out of its planners.
I happen to enjoy the smallest applications – they are still a form of placemaking, and they allow you to help real people with proposals that are small in scale but really very important to them. I prefer a rapid turnaround of small applications to devoting months or years to a single, major scheme.
But it is not very glamorous, and it means that council planning departments do not attract the best and brightest new graduates. It is not a profession that rewards raw ambition. It is a job in public service, and although it does have its rewards, it is not as rewarding as it could be because it is focused too much on minor applications. The UK planning system therefore has a recruitment crisis – not enough young people consider it a worthwhile career option. This shortage of talent among our planners undermines the quality of service provided to applicants.
Blame the System
In spite of this, most case officers work hard and are conscientious. Council officers in general care a great deal about their local patch and local authorities are a great place to work. Pretty much everything I know about how planning really works, I learnt from my colleagues in local councils. Ultimately the planners aren’t at fault. The failure really lies with the system in which they have to operate.
It is overly prescriptive. In Britain, political control is centralised – Westminster and Whitehall have no real faith in local decision making. Councils are not well-resourced (especially in the post-austerity era) and rigid control is substituted for local discretion. Councils have the power to set out local planning policies and guidance, but demanding targets are set from above and the government keeps extending permitted development rights (allowing householder extensions without the need for planning permission) to take more and more proposals out of councils’ hands.
And planning is, of course, highly political. Councillors are elected by, and answerable to, local residents. Local residents can, in turn, be vocal in their opposition to development in their area. Opposition to development is loud and focused and great pressure can be channelled from residents, through councillors to planning departments, even regarding relatively minor and small-scale applications.
In response to these pressures, planning departments develop a distinctive culture. As a planner, when you join a new council, your first job is to work out what that culture is. If the council hates crown roofs or two-storey side extensions, for example, and refuses to grant permission for them, you had better fall in line with this approach or find another job. Recommending approval of such applications against prevailing winds is possible in theory, but unsustainable in practice.
It is important to remember that case officers do not, strictly speaking, decide applications. They make recommendations that are either signed off by superior officers (under what are known as delegated powers) or considered by the planning committee of elected councillors. Case officers do not make a recommendation without an eye on who will make the final decision. It is not a good career move to recommend an application for approval if it will not be signed off by a line manager or if the recommendation is publicly overturned at committee. It is humiliating when a report is returned to you to be rewritten, making the opposite recommendation. (It also explains why so many applicants receive a refusal when the case officer had hinted that the application would be approved).
That isn’t to say that case officers don’t have discretion. A trusted case officer will have almost all of their recommendations signed off (especially if they cleave faithfully to the culture of their planning department). Some line managers barely check the plans or the officer’s report before signing off on them. There is quite wide discretion for applications that have not generated any real local opposition.
Computer Says No…
The result of all this is that case officers are inclined to be reactive rather than proactive. There is no reward for daring to be original or creative and so it can be easier to refuse applications that to approve them. Neighbours and councillors often protest louder when an application is approved than applicants do when their application is refused.
Because case officers are cautious, conservative, and reactive (in order to avoid provoking resistance from senior officers, neighbours, and councillors), designers find it easier to submit cookie-cutter proposals than risk something more imaginative or adventurous. Innovation is not generally rewarded. The outcome is a “Carol Beer” stance on planning applications. Like the character in Little Britain, case officers say “computer says no” when applications do not comply directly and straightforwardly with the council’s usual, habitual approach to other applications of the same type.
This creates a postcode lottery in planning. In the last quarter of 2020, the London Borough of Redbridge refused 47 percent of applications it received. Watford Council came second, refusing 40 percent. The councils of Tamworth, North East Lincolnshire, and Redditch, on the other hand, refused only one percent of applications1. The percentage of applications refused in England as a whole was 13 percent.
Applications that are acceptable in one area might be refused in a neighbouring council district. Proposals that were acceptable several years ago may no longer be, because a new cohort of councillors and senior planners has their own preferences and pet hates. Individual case officers make different decisions depending on their tenure, experience, and self-confidence.
Case officers respond to the pressures on them by avoiding interaction with applicants and neighbours. The reason I specialise in planning appeals (which are heard by a central government agency and not by local councils) is that I find communication with some local council planners to be intolerably painful. In my own local council, for example, case officers do not have direct telephone lines. One must instead ring the council switchboard and leave a message. Case officers have 48 hours to return the call. Often, they don’t call back at all. Officers regularly ignore emails (something that would be considered entirely unacceptable in any other public-facing organisation) and occasionally respond in ways that are defensive, obstructive, or aggressive.
And yes, when I was a council officer, I too could be unhelpful. It was a response to the pressures of the job and the reality that incoming communications from applicants and neighbours generally brought with them fresh difficulties. People find planning applications extremely stressful (whether they are desperate for permission to be granted, or keen that it should not be) that they are not always very pleasant to deal with. However, the main reason I was unhelpful was because I could be – there is no strong culture of public service and no repercussions for providing a generally poor service.
Blame the Housing Crisis?
Since we are in the blame game, the housing crisis deserves a mention. The general public and the government are broadly united in their view that the UK has a terrible shortage of new homes and that they must be built somewhere, as long as it isn’t in the countryside or the green belt. The consequence of this is that we must squeeze ever more homes into existing towns and suburbs, often to the dismay of residents. It is an inevitable consequence of the state of current planning policy that areas with low densities and lots of open space will face considerable pressure from developers.
The housing crisis leads to high property prices, which encourage developers to undertake projects that would not normally be desirable or profitable, piling more pressure on residential areas. In a “normal” housing market, no sensible person would convert their garage into a studio flat, for example, because the value of the (sub-standard) new unit would be low. In London today, converted garages command high rents and resale values.
Government policy also feeds through to incentives when it comes to extensions. Eye-watering rates of Stamp Duty Land Tax (paid when you buy a home) create a perverse incentive to extend your home rather than move and buy a new home. In London and the southeast, in particular, you might pay £100,0002 in stamp duty to move to a larger family home. That would pay for a lot of extensions. The result is that houses are often awkwardly extended and become oversized. The value of extra floorspace in £ per square foot is so high that the market doesn’t punish homeowners (in terms of the market value of their home) for poorly conceived extensions. As a result, ugly developments proliferate.
Sorry, Dear Reader, but It Is Also Your Fault
As a planning consultant, I tend to think that the system is failing and that council case officers are too conservative and lack imagination. But when I was a council case officer, I found myself exasperated by the poor quality of submissions I had to deal with. Your opinion on where the blame lies for our failing planning system largely depends on your starting point.
Applicants and their agents must shoulder their fair share of the blame. Some really terrible planning applications are submitted to local authorities. Some are truly awful, with no hope of success. They waste the time and energy of the applicant themselves and of council officers. They exhaust neighbours who whip themselves up into a frenzy of objection. They are a huge waste of money.
Short-sighted homeowners hire the cheapest designers they can and, ultimately, get what they pay for. Designers charging low fees draw up bad quality plans without bothering to make sure that they are accurate, without any real attention to design or detail, and without checking in advance whether they comply with local policies. This is a real drag on the system. It is bad enough that case officers spend so much of their careers assessing single-storey rear extensions, without most of the applications being substandard.
The following chapters will help you negotiate the planning system. They are laid out as a series of six steps. Steps 2–6 tell you how to make the most of permitted development rights, understand planning policies and processes, manage the application process, deal with a refusal, and be aware of the risks of planning enforcement. Following these steps is key to achieving a successful outcome.
However, if I could give applicants just one piece of advice, it would be to choose the best possible designer. I believe this is so important that I have made it Step 1 on our journey.
- Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government
- According to www.home.co.uk, the average asking price for a four-bedroom house in London at the beginning of 2020 was £1,590,290. Stamp duty on the purchase of a property at this price would typically be £104,584.