Spotlight: Smarter Planning for Smarter Cities

Planning officers across London dealt with nearly 77,000 planning applications in the year to March 2016, ranging from major schemes to home alterations to advertisements (1). During a debate on staffing at Future of London’s Doing More With Less conference, Pat Hayes, LB Ealing Executive Director of Regeneration & Housing, said local authorities have the resources to deliver services and development. But he argued that when it comes to planning, employees spend so much time on low-level planning applications that many aren’t making the best use of their knowledge and skills.

Following a discussion with planning managers at LB Ealing and LB Southwark, this spotlight assesses current and potential initiatives to reduce workloads and create opportunities for local authority planning teams to take on strategic projects and more varied work.

building

Current measures

In London, the majority of planning applications are made online through Planning Portal, which guides applicants through the process, from finding the site address to selecting the application type to submitting supporting documents. Rather than scanning and filing individual paper documents, planning officers can easily file and verify information as soon as an application is registered.

Linking Planning Portal with internal application management systems allows local authorities to further streamline operations. For example, at Southwark Council, 90% of applications come through Planning Portal; these are then moved through the council’s own workflow system, which tracks where each application is in the planning process and how quickly each step is being completed.

Moving from paper to digital has saved planning officers time, material and expenses. The council is also aiming to overhaul consultation communications to make better use of email and online media, saving further on staff time and costs.

Future measures

While changes like these undoubtedly maximise resources, adopting new approaches to particularly time-consuming types of applications could have an even bigger impact. For example, householder applications, usually consisting of alterations such as extensions and loft conversions, form a large share of planners’ workload.

Permitted development rights, which allow householders to make some changes without planning permission, have not reduced strain on the planning system as intended. Rising house prices and low interest rates have encouraged homeowners to invest in improving their homes and unlock equity rather than move. In the year to June 2012 (prior to permitted development), 38% of planning applications London-wide were householder applications; in the year to March 2016, this proportion rose to 48%. In Merton and Lambeth, householder applications rose by over 20 percentage points; in many boroughs they now comprise around 70% of applications.

Householder applications as a percentage of all planning decisions by borough,
April 2015 to March 2016

 

The majority of householder applications are compliant: it’s in the householder’s interest to carry out alterations by the book since unlawful changes could affect the mortgage or sale. With this in mind, a self-certification system for householder applications could significantly reduce officer workload. Responsibility for ensuring alterations are to standard would fall to householders and planning enforcement.

For this to work, householders need more detailed guidance on what alterations are allowed for different types of housing. Buy-in from all local authorities would also help achieve this goal and ensure consistency.

Dealing with planning conditions also takes a substantial amount of time. Planning permission may be granted subject to conditions, meaning the applicant must submit more information to show that the development will adhere to policy. For example, applicants may have to detail building materials, construction waste management plans or wildlife protection measures. On major applications, the number of conditions can run high, and the required documentation varies from short statements to detailed reports. Each of these needs to be registered, reviewed and approved, or ‘discharged’.

Requiring applicants to provide more details early in the planning process would alleviate some administrative workload. Reducing the number of conditions altogether could have an even larger impact, including speeding up development. This would need to be considered carefully to ensure fewer conditions didn’t lead to irresponsible development.

conditionsExample of planning conditions

Other major time demands are authority-specific. For example, in Camden, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster, anywhere from 20% to 27% of applications are for alterations to listed buildings; Ealing sees a high proportion of applications for tree works; and the number of advertising applications is four times higher in the City of Westminster than any other authority. Dealing with listed buildings is delicate, but there may well be ways to minimise time spent on applications such as tree works, most advertising, basic alterations (e.g. window replacements) and change of use.

Staff skills & training

What would planning teams do with all this newfound time? With an in-depth knowledge of planning policy, one option is for staff to train in related areas and take on new challenges. Planners could take a greater role in viability assessments and negotiations, strategic projects and neighbourhood planning. They could also spend more time engaging with communities and developers, achieving higher quality in larger developments.

Another option is to integrate work across departments such as highways, regeneration and other related areas. Employees who can broaden their knowledge of different policy and service areas will contribute to a flexible workforce, and creating strategies with cross-departmental involvement will ensure a joined-up approach to development.

Supporting staff by offering training and new challenges could also help keep highly-skilled, knowledgeable people within local authorities and attract new employees.

 

Is your local authority using technology or new ways of working to make the planning process more efficient or do you have an idea that could help achieve this goal? Get in touch with amanda@futureoflondon.org.uk to share your experiences or thoughts.

 

(1) Statistics throughout this post are taken from the government’s live tables on planning application statistics (Table P124A) for the years ending March 2016 and June 2012.