When it comes to building new homes, the planning process can be difficult and uncertain, but there are things you can do to make the process smoother. Many associations already do, providing some of the inspiration for this blog.
Duncan Neish, Policy Officer, National Housing Federation
28 February 2019
1. Pre-application engagement is usually worth the time and money. Most planning departments encourage applicants to talk to them before submitting applications, and the earlier the better. It can be a useful way to get a sense of what’s important to your site, based on previous or similar applications, current policy developments, or political insight. This Local Government Association checklist might be useful.
2. Engage early and often with communities and councillors. You might not win over everyone – but if there are objections it’s good to know early. Good engagement, including willingness to accommodate concerns, can draw the sting from some objections. When it can’t, early knowledge is useful for preparing your case.
Contact utility providers too – their connections often take longer than anticipated. Also, keep in touch with contacts, particularly ahead of changes or critical points in the process.
3. Do your research. Talking to officers, councillors and communities should give good insight into site-specific and other relevant local issues. For complex or potentially contentious applications, however, or where early engagement doesn’t yield enough, it may be worth doing or commissioning your own research, e.g. site history, council issues, and who the main players are (officers, councillors, community members, landowners, or organisations with an interest in the site). Architects, surveyors and solicitors can also be a useful source of wider local insights. Communication and public affairs specialists can help with larger schemes.
4. Put your hand in your pocket. Planning application fees should get you a positive and efficient service. National targets should provide certainty. But it doesn’t always feel like that. Planning fees don’t generally cover the cost of processing applications, so hard-pressed councils can’t always provide the levels of service you want.
One route to greater assurance is to invest in a Planning Performance Agreement. These won’t be suitable in all cases, and aren’t a guarantee of happy times (be careful to scrutinise what your money actually buys you) but feedback from housing association users is broadly positive. Other associations report paying for particular items – such as external solicitors to act for the council in Section 106 negotiations. Just remember you’re paying for the process, not the outcome – your money may buy a report that goes against your proposals, but it’s better to know sooner than later.
5. Don’t be invalidated. One of the most common delays to applications is being deemed invalid. A small error or oversight in a complex submission can prevent your application getting to the starting line. Make sure you’re familiar with the authority’s specific requirements – and follow up to establish progress.
6. Be comprehensive. Planning applications for ‘major development’ (anything over 10 homes) require lots of detailed documentation. Some of this is simply to make a valid application, but more will be needed to respond to follow-up questions.
You can also leave some details to be decided through conditions, and there can be good reasons for leaving these until later. But if you want to get on-site and you know what you want to build and how, it’s better to provide more information upfront. Your research and engagement should give you a good idea of what questions are likely to arise.
7. Discuss conditions early. Securing consent isn’t the last major planning hurdle – there’s also a list of accompanying conditions. Conditions are often a necessary and sensible part of planning, but they can be over-used or applied too early. The Government recently amended regulations to deal with excessive pre-commencement conditions. Again, early discussions and research can help assure more of the right conditions at the right stage. The same might apply to discussions over Section 106 agreements.
8. Think twice before withdrawing. If an application looks likely to be refused, or there are important issues outstanding, you may be advised to withdraw it. Sometimes that’s good advice – and re-submissions for similar schemes are free for a year. But there are other reasons why withdrawal might not benefit you. If time is a factor, you might want to agree an extension. If you pull out to avoid a refusal, remember that you also forego the right to appeal.
9. Contribute to local plan development. Engagement with development of local plans and policies could give future applications a smoother ride. We’re supposed to have a ‘plan-led system’ whereby the local plan provides clear guidance. In reality, half of councils don’t have an up-to-date plan. Some struggle to resource the process, others don’t want to make difficult decisions.
As with applications, however, a little investment (money and time) in supporting the process can lead to more certain and favourable outcomes. Helping identify suitable smaller sites and ensuring robust affordable housing policies are just two ways housing associations could help create a more conducive environment for themselves.
Your housing association may be active across many areas – it might be worth prioritising their importance to your development ambitions. Where multiple housing associations are active in one area, consider collaborating to amplify and harmonise sector voice, while also sharing the workload.
10. Finally, do all you can to speed up the process and make it more certain, but still don’t underestimate how long it can take or how uncertain it can be. More information can be found on the Planning Advisory Service’s applications pages.
We have also published two blogs focusing on housing associations working with local authorities to build more homes, showing that relationships formed and sustained outside of the applications process can reap rewards: