It feels like we are heading towards another shake-down of the planning system. Or, rather, it feels like we are going to get shaken down at least twice. The first will be led by our new Government as it looks to streamline the system. The second will be led by councils as they attempt to shed work and cost in order to make ends meet.
I’ve been wondering how we might help. After all we in PAS probably know more about the inner workings of planning departments than anyone else alive. We continue to do lots of work with councils but most of it is done in private. I believe that anyone setting out to change the planning system should start by understanding what it does, so this post is an attempt to share a little evidence base.
I have a mini database of planning applications that I use to help people who want to compare their work. I use it for informal benchmarks as well as for ‘devo’ areas who are wanting to introduce common performance measures. It has 28,000 planning applications, all from 2015/16 and all tied into a common naming scheme. They are from a variety of places – rural districts, small unitaries and London too. Not statistically valid, but a good mix.
100 cases – not too many, nor too few
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with big datasets, and each application is its own little story and matters very much to someone. So I thought the best thing to do is to take a random slice of 100 cases. You can download the dataset here [I have made it unlinkable to real people for DPA reasons]. I ran the random routine several times – I’ll post the output from each run when I can work out where I can host them.
The job of a planning application is to get decided
Let’s start with the basics. An application for consent should end with a decision. 94 cases do, the other 6 get withdrawn. Sometimes that happens because someone changes their mind, other times they apply to the wrong planning authority.
Almost all planning applications are successful
Of the cases that proceeded to a decision by the planning authority, 86 were approved and only 7 refused. The refusals are a mix of cases – not a pattern I can see.
Planning applications are generally single transactions
Councils usually record what sort of application they are processing. This allows us to see how much work is presented by the initial application, and how much by follow-up variations, amendments and discharge of conditions.
In this set there are 7 conditions, 7 minor amendments and 1 application to remove/vary a condition. This represents a 15% follow-up [although there is probably some more work to be done standardising how to count conditions].
Planning applications are generally for straightforward things
The top three categories of development are householders, minor commercial and trees. When you scan down the description of development you get a sense of how routine most of this work is, and begin to wonder at the cookie cutter process it goes through.
In this sample set there aren’t any ‘majors’ at all.
A council can afford to spend about 4 hours on a planning application
29 applications in our sample have no fee at all. The average fee across them all is £247 which equates to about 4 or 5 hours of time. Once the overhead of the beginning and the end of the process is removed, this is perhaps down to 3 hours.
Planning applications take about 60 days
How long a planning application can take to be decided is an official performance measure, and for most applications it is 56 days. Anyone connected with this world knows some of the behaviour that this measure creates, which in turn means that measures like ‘average days’ don’t really help an understanding of how long things take. I prefer to see the whole dataset, with a boxplot to help me see the median and IQR.
The quickest application took 3 days – it was a tree consent that did not require neighbour notification. The longest took 264 days – an application for a lawful development certificate that was ultimately refused.