Chris Norman is the Chair of the Heads of Planning Scotland Development Management Sub-Committee, and Development Management Manager at West Lothian Council. Here, Chris provides a public sector response to the issue of planning authorities ‘stopping the clock’ in determining planning applications.
When determining planning applications there can be delays caused by a number of factors. Some of these are down to the planning authority especially in complex cases where assessments can involve a lot of detailed work or extensive consultation is necessary or where changes have to be made to overcome objections.
However, it also has to be recognised that applicants and their agents can often cause delays in the process and planning authorities in Scotland feel there should be a method of recognising this in performance statistics. This is especially important in the context of new Scottish Government legislation which allows for reduced fees for poorly performing planning authorities.
One of the most common areas of delay is the conclusion of the legal agreement to secure the planning permission. Most authorities have experience of this. Once the legal agreement is concluded and the decision issued, the clock starts ticking for the developer and they usually have 3 years to start. Delaying the legal agreement sign off is a means of preserving a ‘minded to grant’ status for longer. But the statistics start with the validation date of the application and end with the decision being issued so all that time it sits with the developer is time that is included in performance statistics unless councils can assure the Scottish Government that the inactivity lies with the applicant and not the planning authority. This seems to be a perfectly reasonable and fair position to take and authorities are now putting systems in place to gather this information more effectively.
Heads of Planning Scotland are keen to ensure that a consistent approach is adopted by councils when it comes to ‘stopping the clock’.
At a time when councils are trying to speed up decision making, it would be a backward step to start issuing letters telling applicants we have stopped the clock. Indeed often we do not know until waiting for weeks for amended drawings that we need to stop the clock. Applicants just need to be aware that where the delay is on their side, they will be accountable for it. To suggest this eases the pressure on planning authorities is unfair. Planning authorities are faced with reduced fee income if they underperform. Why should inactivity on the part of applicants prejudice our performance figures and fee income? Applicants should support ‘stopping the clock’ as it makes our resources and ability to provide a good planning service more assured.