Local applications truer picture of planning culture change

04 April 2014

Local applications truer picture of planning culture change

04 April 2014

The return of BBC2 show The Planners is a clear sign that the planning process continues to be topical.  Here, planning expert Martin Patrick explores whether culture change and increased fees are translating into higher standards across Scotland:

At the start of 2014, the Scottish Parliament passed the Regulatory Reform Bill.  This piece of legislation creates a statutory link between planning fees and performance.  As part of the reform of the planning system announced by Planning Minister Derek MacKay back in March 2012, a series of consultations on various aspects of the planning system was launched, including proposals to increase the fees for planning applications.  Following representations from a range of stakeholders a broad 20% rise in fees was settled on.  However, the Minister made it clear that in times of flat economic growth and a stalled economic recovery, planning authorities would have to earn their fee rise and, more importantly, could be punished for poor performance and have the 20% increase withdrawn. 

Speed-based statistics

Over the past 18 months the Scottish Government has been collating and publishing data on each local authority’s “performance” in a range of categories of applications.  Performance is not strictly defined by decision-making timescales but by a framework of performance indicators set out by the Heads of Planning Scotland.  However, the statistics published only record the speed of decision making and so early impressions must be formed against this background.

Other commentators have reviewed the statistical release and reported on some headline findings, particularly relating to the time taken to determine major applications.  Whilst important indicators of performance, they perhaps do not tell the whole story.  The latest set of annual figures shows there were 238 major applications received in Scotland in the 2012/13 financial year as opposed to 29,483 local applications received in the same period.

Local applications have a determination period of 8 weeks and comprise small developments of less than 2 hectares or less than 50 dwellinghouses.  Whilst much attention is focussed on the large projects, it is the huge number of local applications which contribute significantly towards the housing or employment land supply across the country.  Therefore, local authority performance in relation to these applications is perhaps a truer picture of the extent to which a culture change has taken hold.

For local applications, the chart below tracks performance across all Scottish planning authorities.

This snapshot of six quarterly data releases shows an improved performance in terms of average time taken to determine a local application, down from around 12 weeks to 10.5.  However, as the target time frame for a local application is 8 weeks, the average application is still taking longer.  The percentage of applications that are decided within 8 weeks appears to be stable in relation to the total number of applications.

The picture worsens when straightforward householder applications are stripped out of the figures, 85% of which are determined within target timescales.  The second chart below shows the performance in handling local housing applications.

The most striking aspect is the wide gap between the blue and grey bars.  As a percentage of total applications handled, the number determined in under 8 weeks is surprisingly low, although in recent quarters the gap appears to be closing.  The average time taken to determine these applications also remains stubbornly high at around 15 – 18 weeks. 

For local non-residential applications, the trends are equally flat.  Average time still remains above the 8 week target with the number of applications determined within timescales consistent at under two-thirds of the total.

Disappointing results

The charts describe a snapshot of data published by the Scottish Government since the programme of planning reform was announced at the start of 2012.  Clearly, it will take time to allow the culture change promised by Ministers to take hold in local planning departments.  The limited data available at this time suggests this change has yet to commence at all.

 This is disappointing for stakeholders who have anticipated improvements in the pace of decision-making to correspond with the rise in fees.  The time taken to decide major applications will always grab the headlines.  However it is the vast majority of local applications that are driving economic recovery in Scotland and early indications illustrated in the charts above show that overall performance is still way off target. 

As the Regulatory Reform Bill takes hold and planning authorities face sanction for under-performance, heads of planning across all of Scotland’s local authorities will be under pressure to secure the 20% increase in fees to sustain departmental budgets and fund their planning services.  The lack of evident culture change in these performance statistics is testament to the scale of the challenge they face. 

For more planning advice contact Martin Patrick on 0131 473 3210 or at martin.patrick@ryden.co.uk