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Town hall tyrannies

Maria Smith

The randomness of planning approvals raises some disturbing questions

One of the darker voices in my head says that planning authorities are more or less king-makers, with the power to make the cunning and lucky a tidy sum on a good development. This naughty voice gains frightening credence when the planning process presents little rhyme or reason.

When idly perusing the quarterly statistics for planning applications from the ­Department for Communities and Local Government, the first thing I noticed for the year ending June 2017 was that the City of London granted 99% of its major and minor planning decisions. At the opposite end, the five local authorities that granted the lowest proportion of planning decisions were outer London boroughs: Enfield, Harrow, Newham, Hillingdon and Hounslow. In fact, of the 15 authorities with the lowest percentage of decisions granted, 10 are in outer London. Why is it harder to get planning permission here?

Where is it easier? Of the 21 local authorities that granted over 95% of decisions, 17 are north of Cambridge, and 14 of these are north of Sheffield. Geographical insinuations aside though, what really struck me was how much the proportion of successful applications varied at all. Even excluding Development Corporations and the City of London, the percentage of decisions granted ranges enormously from a whopping 98% in Wigan down to just 61% in Enfield. What makes some authorities grant so much and others so little?

I wondered whether the boroughs granting a higher percentage of decisions also tended to bring fewer applications to ­decision. A well-resourced, hands-on ­application process might nip unfavourable ­development in the bud. The numbers did not support this theory though.

What about scale? The percentage of minor applications also varied tremendously, from 14% to 63%. Inner London tended to have a higher proportion of minor applications but outer London was representative of the national situation, which shows no correlation between the proportion of minor ­applications and percentage of decisions granted. So no, it doesn’t seem to be about scale.

What if a series of ever so slightly brasher decisions leads us to a world where an application for planning permission amounts to an application for prosperity: permission to be rich?

While outer London authorities in general are granting a smaller proportion of permissions, this isn’t the case for all: Sutton, Merton and Ealing are all granting more than 85% of decisions, only just below the national average. Is this a clue? I’ve collected various data on all the London boroughs (don’t ask me why) so I compared everything I could think of, but found nothing. It doesn’t seem to be geography, or population, or job density, or persons per hectare, or number of businesses, or education level, or the percentage of people who visit museums or the percentage of people who feel they can get along with people from other backgrounds. There isn’t even any correlation with whether political control of the borough rests with Labour or the Conservatives. Perhaps it isn’t something that tells us of the culture of the citizens of the borough. So what then?

Nationally, major applications for ‘general industry/storage/warehouse’ achieve a 97% success rate; whereas minor applications for dwellings, 74%. We all know the seemingly disproportionate difficulty of securing planning for small housing projects. I’m sympathetic to the argument for expanding the remit of permitted development, allowing innovation to flourish where the risk is smaller and relieving our beleaguered planning departments. I eagerly compared numbers of dwellings granted with the percentage of decisions granted and was there a correlation? No! So what is it? Why do some authorities grant planning to so many more projects than others?

There is supposed to be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ but there seem to be wildly different interpretations of this phrase across the country. Perhaps all this comes down to ‘sustainable development’ being nigh on an oxymoron. Perhaps this lack of decisive guidance is letting sinister human nature bloom. What if a series of ever so slightly brasher decisions leads us to a world where an application for planning permission amounts to an application for prosperity: permission to be rich? What if this then gets out of hand and a sweeping change of government abolishes private development altogether? What if all construction becomes nationalised and an application for planning permission becomes an application for your project to be built by the state? What if we all have universal basic income so everybody spends their time generating value in whichever way they find interesting and architects sit about imagining designs and submitting them not for awards but for nationalised construction? But I digress, or am becoming hysterical: there’s a naughty voice in my head saying planning authorities are more or less king-makers.

Maria Smith is a director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang


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