Can We Privatise the Planning Process?

Time and time again I’m forced to watch as a local planning authority makes a complete mess of one of our planning applications.

It’s starting to feel like every time I submit a planning application to the planning authority, they’re more or less guaranteed to handle things unprofessionally.

They take their time in getting back to us, and it feels like weeks can pass before they let us know whether our application’s been validated. And then there’s the last minute objections – or, as they call them, “concerns” – always raised on the day before determination. They could have raised their concerns prior to the public consultation process, but that would be too reasonable.

These issues might seem small, but they result in costly delays for the client. After all, they might be waiting on a change of use application so they can stop paying the higher rates of council tax associated with the now-defunct use of a derelict building. And on top of that, for every day that passes without their project getting approved, they miss out on collecting the rental income that they’re counting on for their return on investment.

But as well as costing our clients money, the behaviour of The Planning Authority invariably smacks of unprofessionalism. I often get the impression that they haven’t actually bothered to read any of the information we’ve submitted. Why else would they ask for answers to questions that we’ve already answered?

Then there’s the lost drawings, and the infuriating excuse that’s trotted out every time we enquire as to why things are going wrong, and why things are taking so long:

“We’re understaffed and overworked.” 

This is an unacceptable response that strikes me as an attempt to gain my sympathy. I wouldn’t dream of saying something like that to a client. So why should The Planning Authority get away with it?

As a result, far too many times I’ve found myself sat exhausted in my office after a long day of tedium and frustration, just wishing that we had an alternative.

But recently, it hit me: Can’t we just privatise the planning process?

And if not, why not?

The Case for Privatising the Planning Process

If a business was ran like a local district or city council office, I doubt it would last very long.

So my question is – why don’t we make The Planning Authority a business? One with real accountability, where real efforts are made to improve customer service?

And yes, this is a question of customer service. After all, our clients are paying for these applications to be submitted.

But it goes much further than that. This flagrant lack of professionalism has a detrimental effect on the lives of countless actual professionals, including architects, planning consultants, engineers, and quantity surveyors. All of these specialists have businesses to run and clients to please. And for as long as The Planning Authority is dragging its feet, their integrity is compromised.

Due to the sheer chaos of the planning system, we experience sudden, unplanned, and unexpected changes to project turnover on an almost monthly basis. To compensate, it’s often necessary to shift the workflow, which of course places serious limits on how efficiently we can serve our clients.

Thankfully, things have never been so bad as to directly affect our clients, and that’s all down to the tireless work of our staff and the wider project teams.

But the point is that all of these issues would be avoided if The Planning Authority were prepared to simply do their job, like they’re supposed to.

#NotAllPlanningAuthorities

Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all Planning Authorities are this bad, and these departments are often full of talented individuals who are just as frustrated as I am.

The way I see it, all of these problems stem from a general lack of accountability. It’s far too easy for Planning Authorities to shrug off huge problems simply by waving their hands and muttering something about being understaffed and overworked.

This is why they’ll think nothing of delaying the application process for weeks before asking for an extension of time. Because, so long as the time extension’s been officially approved, they can claim that they’ve behaved completely above board throughout the entire application process.

How Plausible Would It Be to Privatise the Planning Process?

I think it’s completely plausible. After all, as a country, we’ve already managed to successfully privatise “Building Control” without encountering too much of an issue.

But let’s not be naive. Privatising the planning process would be a complex process that would encounter seemingly insurmountable obstacles and objections at every step of the way.

One of the main issues is corruption. Without sufficient regulation, the planning process could all too easily descend into a nightmare world of backhanders, bribes, shady deals, mysterious disappearances, and town councillors who are suddenly spotted driving brand new Jaguars.

But there’s a way round this. Architects are governed by the RIBA, and surveyors are governed by the RICS. Could there not be a similar governing body for privatised planning agencies?

Because if the process were effectively regulated, agencies would be accountable not just to the businesses they deal with, but also to a higher governing power.

And yes, I appreciate that agencies are already required to respond to a governing power. It’s only on the business front that they appear to be lacking.

A Privatised Planning Process Could Still Represent the Public

Some of you are no doubt screaming at your computer screen right about now. I know what you’re thinking:

“How on Earth can this man miss such an obvious point?”

Yes, I appreciate that the planning system as it currently exists is designed to protect our country’s rich heritage, and to safeguard the future of our land, our buildings, and our infrastructure.

To achieve these aims, policy and regulation is guided by trained professionals, whose job it is to speak on behalf of the public who can’t attend meetings to raise their objection in person.

Could a privatised planning system still speak for the people and not, say, for the interests of a few wealthy property developers?

I’m going to answer that question with another question:

How could things possibly get any worse than they already are?

How many city skylines are dominated by the sort of ugly high rise buildings that will only have to be torn down within 20 years?

How many times have you driven down a residential street filled with ugly abominations by modern housing developers?

And that’s without mentioning the individuals who take the DIY approach, producing ramshackle yet ostensibly regulatory extensions to their homes on limited budgets.

If this is the way things are run now, then I really struggle to see how privatisation could make things any worse.

How Else Might We Improve the Planning Process in the UK?

Is privatisation and accountability the only option we have if we want to make our planners act more professionally?

Or do we simply have to accept that things will always be this way, because this is the way they have to be?

I hope not.

But in any case, whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

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