Fix our broken planning system to get Britain building

Vraj Pankhania Wednesday 24th May 2023 08:46 EDT

Our planning system is broken. The current system and processing of planning applications is not fit for purpose. It is attempting to operate based on legislation originating over 50 years ago. It is overly cumbersome, frustratingly slow and excessively bureaucratic. All of these issues combine to produce unacceptable delays in the decision-making process, with the end result of preventing economic growth and placing developers in serious financial difficulty.

I have been growing the Westcombe Group for almost 50 years now, developing and restoring listed buildings and building [thousands] of houses since 1975, and the current situation is the worst I can remember.

You can see the effects of the current regime across the industry. The Westcombe Group alone is currently involved with numerous multi-million pound developments which have been delayed due to the operation of the current planning system. There are several factors at play here. We are seeing a lack of continuity in planning personnel, where applications often appear to be passed between officers who are not fully briefed on the contents of the application, resulting in a lack of understanding and continuity and meaning we essentially need to start again. There is also often a feeling in the industry that many planning officers are looking for reasons as to why an application should not proceed, as opposed to looking for solutions as to how it can. All these factors add uncertainty, inefficiency and a complete lack of continuity to many applications. This has the inevitable result of delaying and deferring many larger development schemes and adversely affecting the profitability of businesses, to say nothing of restricting the housing supply which we know our society so desperately needs. And in the current economic climate of higher interest rates and exponentially increasing construction costs, many developers are either going out of business or not commencing development in the first place.

A planning system which exacerbates, rather than eases, these burdens is simply not sustainable. We can and must improve our regulations. There may be resistance to doing so in the Civil Service, but the costs for business and communities are clear. For example, Iceland has recently scrapped plans to open a new Londonderry store specifically citing planning process delays as the reason. This is by no means a new problem. When I raised the matter some time ago with Theresa May when she was Prime Minister, she agreed that the system needed change. And Michael Gove is on the record consistently over the last few years calling for a systemic overhaul. But to date nothing has happened. This uncertainty about potential change is further delaying developers’ decisions and preventing the construction of thousands of properties when there exists a huge need for affordable homes. We need clear, decisive action, rather than the delay and confusion which has characterised the sclerotic planning system of recent years.

The final nail in the coffin is that the Help to Buy scheme has now ended. This was one area where government support enabled developers to proceed and help first-time buyers buy their own homes. The scheme ensured that the construction industry kept moving, but this has now been completely withdrawn.

All of this does not bode well for the future of our industry, at a time when the direct and indirect contribution from the construction and housebuilding sector which has traditionally been at the forefront of growth in the economy is needed more than ever. We all know we need more housing. It’s time for the government to help, not hinder, those of us building them.

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