Reviewing Planning Performance – A Private Sector Perspective

Planning performance still not up to scratch?
Alasdair Morrison, Associate Director at GVA James Barr provides his perspective on the performance of planning departments in Scotland’s 12 largest local authorities.

Six years have now passed since the introduction of some of the most significant changes to the Scottish planning system in a generation. However, the spotlight has once again fallen on the performance of council planning departments with the publication of the latest Scottish Government statistics.

The April 2015 figures show an improving year-on-year performance by some authorities, albeit against a starting point that was nothing to write home about. The speed at which councils decide on planning applications has become a key issue in recent years for both the Scottish Government and the property industry as the country pulls out of a significant recession and looks to stimulate growth through new development.

GVA James Barr has analysed the performance statistics for 12 of Scotland’s largest councils over the three years for which comparable figures exist (see table below). The table assesses the number of ‘major’ planning applications that councils have reached a decision on in that year and the average time it has taken them to do so. Those councils in red are taking longer to reach decisions compared to two years ago while those in green are making quicker decisions.

Major applications are defined as those above a certain size (eg. 50 new homes or a site of more than two hectares). These tend to be concentrated in the authorities we have examined, for instance in 2013/14 more than 70% of major applications were decided upon in these 12 council areas.

Scotland as a whole has reached a view on almost 800 major applications over the last three years and has been fairly consistent in achieving timescales of about nine months on average. This is against a four month target set by the government for such decisions.

AMorrison Table1

Of the largest councils only Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire and, latterly, Dumfries and Galloway have come close to matching or exceeding the government target of four months for major applications. Then you have a group of councils – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Highland and Borders – who take about four or five months to reach decisions on these larger proposals. However, there are authorities taking close to a year or more to determine such schemes including Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, West Lothian and South Lanarkshire.

One of the ‘obstacles’ often quoted by those involved in planning is the need for legal agreements to be resolved prior to decisions on large scale applications. Whilst it is true that applications of this type do take longer on average than other major applications – between 46 and 50 weeks on average – there is also a significant difference between council achievements in this regard. In our analysis we examined the difference between the highest achiever, which in all of the last three years has been City of Edinburgh Council as opposed to Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway and South Lanarkshire who in specific years have taken on average between 21 and 23 months to decide on these more complex applications.

AMorrison Table2

GVA James Barr would suggest councils look at taking action on a number of fronts to improve their planning response times.   For instance resources could be reallocated from minor to major applications so that permissions for things like household extensions can be reassigned to administrative staff or contracted out to other agencies.

Councils could also look at piloting higher application fees for complex projects in return for a guaranteed decision timescale. This process needs to be given teeth so that an applicant is refunded a percentage of the fee paid if the delay is caused by the planning authority and vice versa if delay is down to the applicant. Applicants and local planning authorities also need to reach a decision on the terms of any legal agreement for financial contributions before an application is submitted. Similarly once a site is approved by a council for a certain land use, for example housing, then the council should remove the need to achieve planning permission in principle.

These are just a few options councils could consider in order to get the planning system moving more quickly to help accelerate Scotland’s economic growth.

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