We will now hear oral evidence from the British Property Federation, the Federation of Master Builders, the Home Builders Federation and the Country Land and Business Association.
Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order. The Committee has agreed that, for this session, we have until 10.30 am. Welcome, witnesses. Would you introduce yourselves, from left to right?
Thank you, Mr Bone. Good morning. It is a pleasure to see some of you again. We have been around the houses a bit on planning and housing Bills.Q
I will start with the most contentious part of the Bill for the Labour party, which is the changes to pre-commencement planning conditions. What evidence is there to suggest that pre-commencement conditions are overused and cause delays in planning processes? It would be helpful if you could give some examples to help us understand the issue.
Obviously, anything that prevents somebody from getting on site and starting implementation of their planning permission is a delay to implementation. Any condition on a planning permission that says that you have to do something before you can commence that development is an obvious delay. Therefore, by very definition, pre-commencement conditions are a delay. However, I want to make it very clear that we are not against pre-commencement conditions per se. They perform a valuable role and are a valuable tool in allowing permission to be granted subject to various things that still need to be sorted out. Therefore, we are supportive of the provision in the Bill.
We want to see greater dialogue between local planning authorities and applicants about the kind of conditions that they believe are necessary on their permission and the timing of those conditions. At the moment, the default for those conditions is to make them pre-commencement, rather than to have a discussion with the applicant about the most appropriate time for those conditions to be discharged in the development process.
We accept that some very important conditions must be discharged before the commencement of development but, similarly, we believe that a lot of unnecessary pre-commencement conditions are put on planning applications that, by definition, delay implementation.
I will address the question in relation to the number of instances of those conditions. The Killian Pretty review, which reported eight years ago almost to the day, conducted research that identified an average of eight pre-commencement conditions. I am not sure which sample of consents it looked at, because now the number of pre-commencement conditions could range up to as many as 22.
In my experience as a practitioner, you would be lucky these days to get away with eight pre-commencement conditions; 22 is more likely to be the norm. That is a lot to work through to get on site, particularly when there is an effect on the ability to fund schemes, to get them across the line and to get them moving in a period where there may be uncertainty. The BPF’s position, to reflect Mr Whitaker’s points, is that pre-commencement conditions play an important role. They often reflect the choices made when applying for consent, and do not provide detail or engage in fully detailing some of the plans and costs before consent is granted. But pre-commencement conditions are often imposed in a way that is arbitrary, unnecessary and indiscriminate. The British Property Federation would support greater use of model conditions backed by a system for being able to seek determination of whether it is appropriate to use those model conditions and modifications to the proposed section 100ZA, which is proposed by clause 7(5). I would be happy to outline the BPF’s proposals for those amendments in due course.
Those of our members who are small-scale house builders consistently tell us that the number of planning conditions they are facing has increased very significantly in recent years. Our 2016 House Builders’ Survey asked a question as to which of a number of different causes of delays within the planning application system—
I am sorry to interrupt. It may be that I am going deaf, but the volume seems a little low in here today. I do not know if anyone can flick a switch or something to try to get it turned up, or perhaps the witnesses could speak closer to the microphone. It was just a little difficult to hear at this end.
I may have been mumbling—I apologise. I was saying that our latest House Builders’ Survey asked a question as to what our members saw as the most significant causes of delay within the planning application process, and the signing off of planning conditions came at No. 2 out of six, I think, just behind the under-resourcing of local planning departments and ahead of things like negotiations and signing off of section 106 and delays caused by statutory consultees that have traditionally been seen as major causes of delay and stasis within the system. There is some evidence there. As the last two speakers have said, our members report this is a problem.
Q I am sorry to interrupt you, Andrew. You said there is evidence there. Actually, what you have collected is the opinions of your members. Did they provide examples to demonstrate what was actually causing the delays?
In terms of what causes the delays, it is not just undertaking the actions specified in the conditions but the delays in signing off those conditions. It is the delays in having those conditions discharged. Unfortunately, quite significant delays in signing off conditions are, we think, the norm.
There are any number of reasons for that, but I think one of them is that the incentives within the system for local authorities are to process applications within a given period of time and, to some extent, to have permissions in place, but the strong perception from our members is that once the permission is granted, the impetus from the local authority’s point of view goes out of the window. Quite reasonably, their priorities then may be elsewhere. That is the fault within the system that leads to conditions causing unnecessary delays.
The Country Land and Business Association carried out a survey of its members this summer, in July, and over half said they wished to partake in provision of more rural housing, which we thought was very encouraging. But a third of them said that they are frustrated in making these investments because of the planning system in general. This is not specific to your question, but we also provide our 32,000 members with an advisory service and by far the largest call on advice was to do with planning: roughly 4,000 inquiries a year are to do with planning, of which a proportion—I cannot give an exact amount—relate to conditionality.
Q Are the measures in the Bill sufficient to speed up the whole pre-commencement planning conditions issue, so that you will get quicker agreement on what needs to be done by your members and in the discharge?
No, not at all. In my experience, the problem with the whole planning process is that the potato stamp comes out from the harassed officer who is dealing with the application, and the first time the applicant generally sees the conditions is when the report goes to committee and becomes public five days before committee hearing. Best practice would suggest that actually the planning officer should negotiate and discuss with the applicant pre-commencement conditions during the process of assessing the application, but in reality I do not believe that happens. So the problem is that the applicant, if he is successful when the committee has passed the application, has then got to deal with pre-commencement conditions that might not accord with section 206 of the national planning policy framework, in that they are unreasonable or whatever.
We actually think that it will help. We have tried to get local authorities to have a conversation with applicants about the conditions they wish to place on planning applications in order to grant permission, and it has just not happened. Good practice has not worked, so using legislation appears to be the only way we will be able to get local authorities and applicants to have a dialogue about what conditions are being imposed on the decision, which of those should rightly be pre-commencement and which should be discharged further in the development process.
Could I put forward a middle way in that context? The BPF’s position is that it has concerns that the measures as put forward under section 100ZA(5) would not deliver a faster outcome for applicants. That is because where applicants disagree with the draft conditions, the only recourse they have is the recourse they have already got, which is ineffective given the time and cost implications of pursuing a full-blown planning appeal. So it leads us no further forward, but we have introduced a further layer of complexity to the planning onion for people to talk about.
Although I agree with Mr Whitaker’s comments and the other comments that have been made about the need for dialogue and the need to promote that dialogue—where that is done, it can lead to some quite good results—the difficulty, in particular in the context of local authority resourcing, which we might come on to later, is that those authorities simply do not have the capability, the capacity and, I stress, in a few cases, the competence to deal with it now, because they have been totally denuded of that. So the ability to actually deliver what the Government are seeking is under huge pressure.
The BPF’s proposal is that there is a specific right of appeal under section 100ZA, so that if a consent is refused or has to be appealed solely because of a failure to reach agreement in relation to pre-commencement conditions—where peace has been given a chance—it should be possible to appeal and to appeal on that point alone. That appeal is then dealt with on a constrained basis, so that, rather than a wholescale reconsideration of the application de novo, only the issues relevant to the condition itself are considered. Obviously, as you know, applications to vary existing planning conditions under section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 are already dealt with on that basis, so there is already a clear legal framework, both in terms of statute and case law, for dealing with appeals on that narrow basis. How narrow it is—and the law confirms—depends on the nature of the condition.
My last point on that is that that appeal system should provide for a fast-track written reps appeal process. That was done for the section 106BC appeal route that was provided for under the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. It was very successful in terms of timescale, and there is absolutely no reason why that could not be done here, subject to resources being available within the Planning Inspectorate to deal with it. Given that it should reduce the overall burden on the inspectorate in relation to appeals, one would hope that a fast-track system would actually deliver something. We are hearing that it is required, ultimately, and sometimes it would be inevitable that it would be. The BPF’s position is that costs should sit squarely and clearly from the outset with the party that fails. The BPF’s position is simply that in using the legislation—the levers Government have—there can be changes, like section 96A and other changes that have been introduced, that drive a cultural change quickly, so that people do not constantly need to have recourse to legislation to effect what we are trying to achieve on delivery.
Q Thank you very much, gentlemen, for giving up your time to come and have a chat with us. Before I was elected to this place, I did a lot of work in the development industry, giving advice to developers on how to manage community consultations and stuff like that. A number of my clients would have said that every time the Government get involved in producing another piece of planning law, frankly, that delays everything. I would be interested in your comments.
Turning to preconditions, I am very keen to make sure that local communities are absolutely and utterly involved in the whole decision-making process and feel that they should have their say. How do you think we can ensure that the preconditions are also considered by local communities in the process?
I do not think there is any doubt that local communities are involved in the planning process and in the planning application process. Therefore, the discussion over the determination of the planning application should involve whether things about the planning application need to be sorted out at a later date, and therefore communities should be expressing those concerns in their representations as part of the planning process. They are represented by elected members at a local level, so I have no worries that local communities are not involved in the determination of a planning application as it proceeds through all the legal procedures. Whether to place a condition on that planning permission is part of the determination process, so whether or not as a community you agree that condition or that the condition should be pre-commencement, it is possible to raise that through the normal procedure, rather than as a discussion on the particular schedule of those conditions. That is a technical process as to whether you need the condition in the first place.
We would very much agree with that. We do not see this as in any way reducing the extent to which local communities and local residents can be involved in the process or can have their say on particular applications. Broadly speaking, the Federation of Master Builders is positive about the provisions on conditions in the Bill because we think that they would institute an earlier conversation about which conditions are necessary, which need to be pre-commencement conditions and which do not, and which can perhaps be pre-occupation conditions, but none of that precludes those conditions being in place or those issues being tackled in some other way. It should serve to institute an earlier conversation about how best to deal with those issues.
Q Mr Whitaker, you mentioned a couple of times that it is best practice for conditions to be agreed in discussion between the local authority and the applicant, and I agree with you. The Bill proposes a much more formal process than that through an exchange of letters between an applicant and the local authority to agree the conditions. The mechanisms in the Bill for resolving a dispute, when that process can be resolved through an exchange of letters, are pretty blunt: the rejection of the application wholesale, and the developer is then left in the position of going to appeal. Notwithstanding what you said about the system not working so well at the moment, can you comment on whether this will help to further encourage best practice, or whether formalising the process in the way proposed in the Bill might have unintended consequences?
Formalising the discussion in writing—of course, that does not mean by post these days—is reasonable. It makes it very clear what people have and have not agreed to, and one can go back and check that that is the case. We would agree with the BPF’s proposal that a fast-track appeal mechanism when disagreement continues would be a good idea, because that would sort out some of the potential further delay that this provision would introduce.
In terms of whether this is a blunt sword—a blunt instrument—the whole point is that one is not supposed to hold the other party to ransom. The applicant is not going to say, “I am not going to accept any pre-commencement conditions on my planning decision at all,” because then it might be perfectly right for the local planning authority to say, “In which case we will refuse your application, on the basis that you haven’t sorted out a particular detail that you could do via condition, so long as you do it prior to commencement of your application.” Or they have to think to themselves, “Would we be happy defending that at an appeal when the only thing we are concerned about is not whether this particular issue can be dealt with via condition but whether it needs to be worded as a pre-commencement condition, rather than as a condition that can be discharged at a different stage in the development process?”
There are lots of trigger points in a development, the most obvious of which is prior to the occupation of a dwelling. You are allowed to do all the groundwork—to slab level, as we call it—so you can word conditions like that. You do not need to agree everything prior to commencement, and we believe that that discussion will be able to focus minds and, ultimately, will lead to the best practice that we all seek.
I have just two points on that in relation to the discussion and dialogue, and the role of the planning onion—we just add another layer to it and make things more complex, rather than less complex. I think that is in part your point: do we add to the systemic complexity that we already have in this regime, which is already a series of layers? As I have already said, the BPF’s position is that there is an opportunity here to do something that is quick, clear and effective, which is where a measure that has real teeth tends to drive cultural changes.
I go back to the question on whether more legislation can really achieve anything in the planning world. Section 96A is a really good example of that. It is a very small amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 that has had a great impact on the day-to-day lives of practitioners by making things a lot easier, and it has driven a cultural change without people having to rely too heavily on legalistic points.
The second point is in relation to how we actually speed up the dialogue and use this as a tool. In part, the solution may be to have greater use of model conditions, which the Planning Inspectorate used to promote. We feel there is an opportunity for the Government to be much clearer about what their model conditions are, using working groups from industry and the government sector to say, “This should be the starting point. This should be when these kinds of conditions are imposed. We shouldn’t be asking for details of windows when you are decontaminating a site or knocking buildings down. This is the form of the conditions imposed.” By doing that we would drain away a lot of the administrative tasks that planning officers, of whom there are too few, are being required to do. They can rely on those model conditions and say, “We have done our job and have justified departures from them because we think it’s important to local people on this particular issue. We are prepared”—as Mr Whitaker said—“to justify that in front of an inspector, and we think they will reach the same decision.”
Q I am a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and yesterday we heard evidence from a range of witnesses within the sector, including from the Federation of Master Builders and the Home Builders Federation, about the lack of resource and capacity in local authority planning departments. It was suggested in that evidence session that the reported overuse of pre-commencement planning conditions is a symptom of a lack of resource in planning departments, rather than a wilful misuse of pre-commencement conditions on the part of local authorities. Will you comment on your experience of the resourcing issues in local authority planning departments?
We would certainly agree that under-resourcing is one of the major drivers behind the high level of use of planning conditions. The strong perception among our members is that planning conditions are often being used to limit the necessity of engaging in detail with a full application. Among the things that often arise from that are planning conditions that have actually been covered in the full application. An example of that would be landscaping. I have heard a number of our members say that detailed landscaping plans were included in their full application but that there did not seem to be any engagement with it, there then being a condition to bring forward those details. Under-resourcing is a major issue that causes numerous hold-ups within the system, and we think it is one of the drivers behind the excessive use of conditions.
This is very profound in rural planning authorities, which are significantly under-resourced in planning. Our members around the country see that all the time. The Committee must also have a mind to the resource of the applicant and the risks within the process. We should do anything that we can to provide certainty of process after the application has been determined, and when an applicant finds that the pre-commencement conditions just do not work for him. In a rural context, these are often low-return projects, and the planning process is the highest risk point at the start of the process.
It is very much a chicken-and-egg situation. If local authorities do not put enough resources into determining a planning application, the temptation is—rather lazily, in my opinion—to deal with everything via condition, rather than as part of the primary application. If authorities focused their resources on what needed to be done as part of the application, they would need to condition less. That would relieve them of having to discharge conditions, which can take just as many resources as the primary application. Therefore, we think that local authorities should reassess their systems and processes to focus their limited resources into the right parts of the process.
Q I would like to continue the line of questioning on resourcing and planning departments that Helen Hayes started. Mr Dixon, you said earlier that the lack of resourcing in planning departments was the No. 1 impediment to getting more applications. Will you confirm that that was the case?
Q Mr Murray said that certainty of process was the most important thing. Would your members or the development community be willing to pay for further resources in local authority planning departments by way of higher planning fees if, in exchange, they had guaranteed service levels—that is, the extra planning fee would be refundable if the service level was not met? Are you willing to pay to remedy the problem you are highlighting?
The overwhelming feeling of our members is that they are quite happy to pay a higher application fee as long as those resources are ring-fenced and go into a demonstrably improved service. There would be very little resistance to that.
The BPF’s position is absolutely in agreement with that. It has set that out in its response to technical consultations. There are issues of how the application is structured, indexation, inflation, and the linking of that fee not just for authorities that are performing well, but for those that are under real pressure for other reasons. There is a general consensus, particularly among commercial development investors, that you get what you pay for. There is a completely profound lack of resource in authorities to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. It is the single biggest brake on development, in terms of applications and starts on site, in my experience as a practitioner.
Q What level of fee uplift, compared to today’s levels, would your members or the development community be willing to pay if a guaranteed service level—an application determined within x period—was associated with that fee uplift? Give us a feel for the quantum.
I might just duck that question, like any true lawyer. The critical point is that we are very used to planning performance agreements, and to guaranteed service levels being offered and assumed, and then not being delivered. There is sympathy for the reasons for that, not least because applications are complex. Local people’s relationship with planning is complex, and quite rightly so, as we are making difficult decisions. Probably the worst thing, from an applicant’s point of view, is that a guaranteed committee date is set and you do not get that committee. You then go into the long grass, and that is used to ransom the applicant. Concessions are made throughout the application process to get to that committee.
It would and the planning guarantee should achieve that currently. The BPF would support that planning guarantee being amended, which would require the application regulations to be changed. The original idea of the planning guarantee was that you should determine either way—refuse if it is a rubbish scheme or approve if it is a great scheme. Within 25 weeks there should be certainty. That certainty is crucial to everyone.
How the planning guarantee works at the moment is that where there is an agreed extension of time, it drops away entirely. It is not the case that if you agree to extend the time to enable a sensible dialogue about the detail of planning application matters, and then that extension fails to deliver a result, you go back to the position of being able to claw back the application fee. What happens, for no good reason, is that it kills off altogether the ability to rely on the planning guarantee. That is completely wrong and undermines the whole purpose and intended effect of the guarantee. In our view, that should be amended so that the system has real teeth.
Q Am I right in thinking that the current planning agreements apply only to large applications? The planning agreements that can already be entered into do not currently help small applications, so one could also introduce that.
Yes, although there is another resourcing issue around entering into and administering planning performance agreements. There is a cultural shift that needs to go on around how applications are project- managed. That is true of the commercial sector, in terms of how it approaches negotiating section 106 agreements, when it looks at conditions in the application process and how much it is prepared to take things on at the earliest stage.
There is also an issue around how to programme-manage people’s diaries. Within an authority, you need sign-off from transport, the education aspect of the authority and housing officers. At the moment, you cannot get a meeting. I have waited three months for an authority to sit down. We said, “Look, there’s no point us sending ping-pong emails on this agreement because you keep telling us everything is not agreed. We just want to sit around the table with everyone and understand your views.” That is impossible, and it is partly due to the chaos, unfortunately, that is going on because of the multiple restructurings and the lack of resource.
Q Are you satisfied that section 106 agreements, which are currently entered into after planning permission is granted, are adequate? It can take a long time to agree them. Are you satisfied that they are adequately addressed by the Bill or not? Do you think that they can still be a source of delay?
They can be a source of delay, but equally, they are highly sophisticated tools for development. I will give you one example: the North Greenwich peninsula. There are 15,000 new homes approved on public land, despite the number of parties involved: the Greater London Authority, the developer and the Royal Borough of Greenwich. That took place within three months of the planning board.
There are other examples. I have just done two schemes further south and west in the country, and it has taken more than a year to get from committee resolution to approval to planning consent. It depends very much how that is approached, but fundamentally, far too much is in section 106 agreements. Much more should be in planning conditions. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 provides a mechanism for a dispute resolution service. We think that should be used in the same way as the appeal that we have spoken about in relation to section 100ZA to provide recourse where planning obligations are used unnecessarily.
Yes. No plan survives contact with reality. There is always dialogue. There should be dialogue in planning; it is fundamental. I think BPF members value pre-application discussions but recognise that once you are in the mix, having submitted the application, the most important thing is how you project and programme-manage those discussions so that you know when local authority resources are available. The crucial thing is that we preserve the ability to have a sensible dialogue about quality, but drain off some of the issues involving technical things, which can be addressed by model planning obligations and model conditions.
Just to pick up on a couple of points, you asked about the use of PPAs on small sites. They are not normally used on small sites—they are probably too clunky and an inappropriate tool for small sites—but we think there would be value in a standard, very basic, perhaps one-page agreement for covering small sites that would perform the role of some kind of service level agreement against which the applicant can hold the planning authority.
No, and in response to your other question, I cannot put a figure on how much more our members would be prepared to pay, but the planning application fee is a fairly small proportion of the total cost of moving forward a planning application. For an improved service, they would be prepared to pay more.
Can I take the Committee on a journey from the Greenwich peninsula, with applications for 15,000 homes, to the barn conversion, which is my members’ domain? The concept that someone would instruct lawyers, pay for the authority’s legal department and negotiate a section 106 agreement for a very small, low-value application beforehand is just not practical. There is not time and it will load risk and cost on to the applicant, so I think there are probably circumstances when the section 106 agreement will follow after the determination of the resolution to grant.
Q Finally, on the question of pre-commencements, are there any particular conditions or parts of the planning process that you think are particularly onerous or absurd and would like to draw the Committee’s attention to? It might be anything to do with great crested newts, for example, without wishing to lead the witnesses.
No. It is possible to discuss everything. It is right that we have conditions that control various things that are not controlled in the planning application, but as I said before, people should be focusing on what is in the application and what the applicant is going to do to mitigate all the concerns on any subject. We frequently find that the mitigation that is proposed in the planning application itself is ignored. A planning condition is placed on the decision notice and the applicant then resubmits the self-same evidence that they submitted as part of the planning application and it is approved under discharge of planning conditions. That is a total nonsense. It is absolutely right that we take a lot of things into account. A lot of people are engaged in the planning application process.
I am interested in the evidence from your questioning of the other witnesses in respect of whether people pay for a better service and whether they get one. Small applications already have a PPA. Those are statutory timetables within which local authorities need to determine a planning application, and they get a fee for that.
Absolutely, and we have suggested in various documents that a staged payment process of all the planning application fees would be better, because the other thing that your questions draw attention to is that there are lots of stages of a development, and not just the tiny part that is the planning application and/or the conditioning of that planning decision. We are also talking about allocations of site in local plans and in neighbourhood plans—the other part of the Bill—and then pre-application discussions, the application discharge conditions and section 106 agreements. All those things need to be looked at in the round, rather than merely focusing on a tiny little part and asking, “Would you pay more for a planning application fee?”. It is a very simple approach but it does not have a very simple answer.
Just to round that off, where those additional fees are ring-fenced for the planning service—either where they are going into a smaller application so that an officer who might be a specialist in the 15,000-unit scheme, but who is dealing with smaller but no less valuable schemes, is freed up, or where they are funding on a locum basis, or however we need to deal with this problem—we should use that fee. We should ring-fence it and use it to allocate resource. I think the industry would probably support that. You get what you pay for, in that sense, and I think that is more important than the idea that we have a specific set of milestones, which may well be missed, just because that’s life.
We need to know that we have someone dealing with the application, that they have read all the papers and are not going to get switched over, that they understand the ecological mitigation because they have read, unfortunately, the three habitat surveys that have been done, and that they can have that conviction, because it comes from a deep knowledge of these complex schemes. At the moment, we have a real crisis in dealing with these applications, because we do not have the deep knowledge available. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, this is a resource issue.
May I come back to your point about newts, Chair? Newts and bats are totemic in rural England and Wales in the planning process. I offer you a personal story about an application for a barn conversion. Thieves came and stole the slate roof. There was no roof and, therefore, there were no bats. The planning authority insisted on the bat survey—and there we were, £1,000 later.
I possibly take a slightly different view from my colleague of newts and bats. There is some anxiety about the Bill, probably based on a misunderstanding of what the changes on pre-commencement conditions actually involve, so this discussion is very helpful from that point of view. I have constituents who are keen to see local authorities retain the power to ensure that proper surveys are done in relation to wildlife and archaeological heritage. From what I understand from the debate on Second Reading and from what you have said today, the planning authorities will retain the power to impose conditions of that kind; there will just be a change in how that is done to ensure that it involves the developer at an earlier stage and does not necessarily have to happen right at the start, before the whole process has begunQ .
Mr Whitaker, can you explain, in simple terms, at what stage of the process surveys of that kind can be required? I can then reassure my constituents that the Bill will not prevent an archaeological survey if it is necessary, and that the aim is to ensure that it happens in a way that causes less delay and cost to developments. It is obviously important to ensure that such work is done before a final decision is made on a planning application.
You are absolutely right and we agree with you. There are many stages in the planning process at which a local planning authority can reflect the community, in many instances, by asking what are the important things that need to be considered as part of the development of a site. They can do that when they allocate the site in a local plan—they can set out various matters that will need to be addressed as part of the development. That can be done by the community themselves at a neighbourhood plan level; it can be done as part of the pre-application and consultation discussion, with the potential applicant, of the issues that the local authority will want to be addressed via the planning application process; and it can then be discussed as part of the planning application process itself, prior to a decision being made. It can also be addressed as part of a planning condition attached to the planning permission.
At all those stages, one can quite legitimately raise any issue that one sees as being key to the planning decision, whether that is archaeology, bats and newts, or any other issue—for example, drainage is often seen as causing delay. Some of those issues will be so critical to whether the development is allowed to go ahead that they should, of course, be addressed very early on in the planning process.
If my local plan allocated a site but said, “This is a difficult site to drain. We will want to see all drainage details sorted out as part of the planning application. We are not going to leave this to a planning condition because it is fundamental to how much development you are allowed to put on the site, depending on your drainage scheme”, the developer would accept that as a constraint and would submit a detailed drainage scheme with their planning application. It is up to the local planning authority to then say, “Okay, this is an important issue for this site. Is the proposed drainage system capable of mitigating the drainage issues and should we approve the planning application on the basis of the scheme submitted with it?” The problem we see is that a lot of local authorities say, “We haven’t got time to do that now. We will make a planning condition that says that, prior to the commencement of the development, we want to agree a drainage system for the site.”
As I have previously explained, frequently, all that happens is that you submit exactly the same drainage system as was submitted with the planning application, or the same mitigation for wildlife, or the same detail that you knew was critical to the determination of your planning application later down the line as a pre-commencement planning condition, rather than it being sorted out as part of the original planning application. We think there are lots and lots of points along the planning journey at which the things that are key to the development of sites can be sorted out. The Bill does not change that at all.
I was pleased to hear that answer, Mr Whitaker, because that issue was on my mind as well. You suggested earlier that planners might focus on the essentials of preconditions. We have to be clear about who determines what the essentials are. For example, when is a bat more essential than a ditch? I think you have made it quite clear, and I do not think that those of our environmental colleagues who are listening will feel you are trying to steamroller over the environment. Can you just give me a yes or noQ ?
Q You are not. Good. Then I would like to go on to my main question, which I put to Mr Murray first. If the local authority and the developer disagree on a pre-commencement condition, there is no recourse in the Bill other than to reject the application and to then appeal the whole thing. I wonder whether that puts off, in particular, rural folk from applying for planning conditions. Does the system put them off because it is too arduous if they fear being turned down the first time?
They can be put off at two stages. They can be frightened by the whole prospect of a change of use and actually applying in the first place. In the post-common agricultural policy Brexit world, we know that the rural economy has got to diversify and we have got to reduce our reliance on agriculture, so there has to be development. I think if we have legislation that does not ease that process of the scrutiny of applications, it will put people off. It will also discourage people from actually going through with appeals. I have members who have applied for planning permission, and when the list of conditions comes out, even if it is passed, they know an appeal is not affordable. They are put off by the prospect of a very expensive appeal, because there is the prospect of the inspector opening up the whole principle of the application.
They cannot appeal just on that, or they are at risk of it being opened up. I must say I think clause 7 is almost there, but it could be bettered if you put in a simplified appeals process. We already have a simplified system for householder or advertisement development, which is eight weeks’ written representations rather than a full-blown appeal. There is a precedent there, and I think that would help.
It could be a useful addition to the system. By and large, and perhaps we are being too optimistic, we do not think it is very likely that there will be protracted negotiations about the use of pre-commencement conditions. The aim should be for some of those conversations to be conducted fairly simply and fairly quickly. We are perhaps a bit more optimistic, particularly around smaller applications, about the scope for huge controversy in those conversations. We think the most important thing is that that conversation takes place at an early point in the process.
Just to be clear, the BPF’s perspective is that the clause, as it stands, will not achieve anything—that is to be somewhat bleak. It will leave applicants in the position they are already in, which is that, if they do not like their consent, they can appeal and have a de novo consideration by the Planning Inspectorate, which will take some time. That is very weak as a dialogue and as a negotiating position.
Q Thank you for allowing me to have a second go, Mr Bone.
I have always thought very seriously that we should make sure we have master planning taking place at a very early stage as well, which would mean the local community could get very involved in it. I am also not going to miss an opportunity to talk about ecology and about making sure that we include hedgehog superhighways in the development, too. That is important, because it is something that does not often necessarily feature in the discussion that takes place with developers. It would be a really good thing if we could encourage that, in my view, because hedgehog numbers have declined by 50% over the past 15 years.
Planning application resources have also declined by 50%, which I think was recently noted in the Communities and Local Government Committee’s evidence session on the local plans expert group. That is perhaps unrelated.
Q Thank you, Mr Bone.
There are just three brief points I want to make, picking up on what a number of you have said. The first is a request of Mr Dixon. You referred to the survey you had done of your members. First, can you tell us how many members you had surveyed? Committee members might find it helpful to see a copy of the results of that survey.
Q With all due respect to the HBF, I suspect there is a very strong consensus across the House that one of the things we want to do is to encourage more SME builders. If this is particularly a concern to that sector, it is highly relevant.
Mr Murray, if I understood you correctly, I think you were saying that you were not sure that these changes regarding pre-commencement conditions would achieve anything, because dialogue between applicants and planning committees was needed. I put it to you that surely that is what this change will require. Because it is going to stop local authorities imposing pre-commencement conditions without an applicant’s agreement, it will surely create the kind of dialogue you want to see.
The proof will be in the pudding going forward. My principal concern about clause 7 is the process of appeal afterwards, if those conditions are not acceptable and not viable. Regarding the point we have just discussed, an appeal that focuses purely on the offending commencement condition would be beneficial to everybody, if the dialogue has not resolved it beforehand.
Q Yes. I think we will go on to discuss this when we get to line-by-line consideration, but the difficulty is that when an inspector looks at a condition, it is difficult to judge it in the absence of the overall application, because the council would say that the condition is necessary to make the overall application acceptable. It is difficult to just look at one condition in the absence of the overall package.
My last question is for Mr Pinnock. I understand the point you are making that there will still be an issue if this Bill goes through as it stands. I want to challenge you on what you said, that people would be in no better a position at all. At the moment, as an applicant, if you do not like the conditions attached to your application, you can appeal. I would argue that there is a beneficial step here in that, now, authorities will not be able to attach conditions that you do not agree to. The authority would have to feel so strongly about one of these pre-commencement conditions as to turn down permission for the whole application. Do you not think that it is at least going to reduce the number of cases where there is a problem, even if it will not eliminate the problem altogether?
It may do, but it is an uncertain position. The issue for investors and also for communities is about how we create a more certain pathway to the number of homes that need to be delivered, and the amount of supported development and infrastructure. It will stop local authorities granting planning permission. That is what clause 7 does at the moment, and the BPF is wary of any measure that arguably stops authorities granting consent. There is a real risk that it is in the “too difficult” box already, and in terms of that dialogue and that negotiation, the authority will just sit back and say, “We’ve got a load of other applications that have come in, and we’ve got to meet our deadlines on that. This one’s just gone straight into the ‘we’re under a statutory restriction to grant consent’ box, so come back to us in a few months’ time when you want to agree our pre-commencement condition,” which, probably, is what would happen. We would still have the delays of discharging the pre-commencement conditions.
A targeted, fair system that allows authorities to stand by their concerns and have those adjudicated by the planning inspector on the same basis as the section 73 consideration that is undertaken at the moment, which has opened out where a condition goes to other points of the application. Quite fairly, it is broadened out. If the majority could be dealt with by written representations, that would provide a real release valve.
Also, as I say, the key thing about any legal change is that it drives a cultural shift, rather than necessarily being something people rely on. The BPF’s view is that this must have teeth and must be speedy and deliver the ultimate objective of certainty for everyone, in order to be a meaningful provision.
Q This follows on from the Minister’s point about how you compile an application with conditions to make it acceptable to the local community and the design elements within that locality. We have heard a lot about bats and newts, and a bit about hedgehogs too. There have probably been more discussions on those than on people and community. I want to explore a bit more the points you were making about the type of conditions being put forward and how reasonable or unreasonable they were perceived to be. Let us use the example of landscaping, which has been used to say, “This is how ridiculous the system is.” Following on from the Minister’s point, the idea that landscaping—planting a few plants here and there—will somehow delay an important development could be the difference between whether an application is acceptable to the local community or not. If a development is alongside your house, the screening and treatment of that could be critical to whether you support it.
Equally, the idea of phasing elements, whereby some conditions could be delayed or brought further into the application—drainage was mentioned—was predicated on the view that costing delays mount up, and that it is better to crack on, get the site done and resolve those issues later. The counter-challenge is that if you are applying for plant equipment or site security, but you cannot get an agreement on drainage, surely there is an inherent cost with that proposal. I want to challenge that to try to get some balance. We are in danger of going from one extreme to the other, and the truth is always somewhere in the middle.
I do not think we are. We are obviously talking about something different. We appreciate that some conditions on a planning permission will have to be pre-commencement. They are right at the heart of the application, and all types of different conditions may well be at the heart of a particular application. We are not suggesting that all landscape conditions cannot be pre-commencement.
You are absolutely right that in some cases—few, I would suggest—the landscaping proposals might well be the fundamental determining issue of that application. In others, it will be other things. The whole point of this proposal is to have that dialogue so that applicants to local planning authorities can say, “Is this really fundamental to you granting me a planning consent, given what I have already put into my planning application proposal?”
To use your example, if I have already screened the neighbour using whatever it was we agreed at the pre-application discussion, it is there as part of the plans of my planning application, and all you need to do is grant me consent in accordance with the plans that I have already submitted to you. You do not need an unnecessary condition requiring further landscaping details to be submitted.
If we have that discussion, I can point out to you that I have already submitted what I believe to be an adequate landscaping scheme. You, as the local planning authority, must then tell me why that is not adequate, whether I could address it through amended plans and all sorts of things, rather than just using the potato stamp—I think we heard that term earlier—of saying, “There is a pre-commencement landscape condition. Let’s sort this out later.” That leads to the delay, but we could have had a discussion about it as part of the planning application or as part of the determination process.
I mentioned landscaping, so I am keen to clarify that point. I was not for a second suggesting that landscaping is not a proper consideration within a planning application. Above all, I stress that we do not see the provisions as a means to exclude certain considerations from the planning process. This should be about rationalising when certain information is needed and the optimum point in the process for it to be submitted, so that the development can come forward as speedily and efficiently as possible. If we get that right, the gains are huge.
I have one point to add. I have sympathy for authorities, in that they will raise the issue of monitoring. They can generally see, when site operations start, that they will receive pre-commencement discharges anyway. Sorry to hit on this point again, but it goes back to resourcing. They will say, “It is just too difficult for us to monitor, after commencement, what is going on at the site, so we need it to be pre-commencement to create certainty.” We always have to be sympathetic to real life, boots-on-the-ground planning where we understand what is happening with these sites.
Some thought needs to take place between the Government, the sector and the commercial sector as to how we can assist the process and set the right stage. There is a preoccupation with many things. There will be a genuine concern that that trigger is missed, that you then cannot evict people and that it is a weak trigger. Therefore, getting it right, and having examples, guidance and model conditions from the Government is important.