The saying goes, ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’, and this is particularly apt when it comes to planning authorities’ performance.
Although the speed at which planning authorities make decisions is one of the metrics on which their performance is based, the way in which this performance is actually measured makes this metric almost meaningless.
To get faster decisions, the way this element of local planning authority (LPA) performance is measured needs to be addressed.
LandTech, therefore, decided to analyse councils’ self-reported determination figures and how they compare to planning application data.
When a planning application is being determined, 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 (either eight, 13, or 16 weeks), they will normally ask the applicant to allow an extension.
If approved in writing, this allows the officer more time to decide the application. It can be done multiple times for the same application, and when the application is finally decided - provided that the decision is within an agreed extension - the application is recorded as being within the statutory time.
This means that an application that should take 13 weeks to decide can, in practice, take much longer; but when this is reported in the official statistics, the application is reported as taking the prescribed 13 weeks.
If statistics from Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) are to be believed, therefore, most major planning applications are decided within 13 weeks. Any developer could then make financial assumptions (professional fees, project timelines, construction programmes, sales campaigns, etc.) on this basis. This would be a mistake.
DLUHC also 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.
Although most councils are reporting planning application determination periods that are within the statutory periods, on the ground the experience can be quite different - with long waits for decisions being quite common.
Comparing data on DLUHC planning application determination periods with LandInsight data reveals when each planning application is validated (when the council decides it has all the necessary information to allow the assessment period to start) and the date each planning application is determined (when council issues a Notice of Determination following a decision), giving the real determination period - the number of weeks in real time that it takes to reach a decision.
This reveals a significant discrepancy between figures reported by councils to DLUHC and the actual lengths of time taken to decide applications.
Data for 2022 shows that official statistics recorded 100% of one council’s major planning applications being determined within 13 weeks, when 40% of the applications were in fact with the council for over a year.
Determination of planning applications can take far longer than is being reported in the official statistics, which won’t shock anyone who has recent experience with the planning system, but might make hard reading for anyone preparing to submit a planning application.
The longer it takes to get planning permission, the greater the holding costs and professional fees for an applicant. The true cost of the under-funded public sector is in plain sight for most applicants, but it has been disguised by official statistics and local authorities use of extensions by for too long.
Harry Quartermain is a chartered planner and head of research and insight at LandTech