Planning Departments Are a Mess and It Has to Stop

Friday, December 18, 2015

Looking back at 2015, I can confidently say it’s been a good year. We’ve cut the ribbon on some of our best projects yet and have found a new home for our practice. But one thing has stood out as a near constant sore point for me, my staff and my clients: planning departments.

Years of budget cuts have left planning departments understaffed and underfunded. Morale in their offices is at an all time low while the number of applications submitted is at an all time high. With the market tough for people trying to buy existing homes, renovations and new builds are increasingly popular.

As a result, there has been a noticeable drop in service quality from planning departments along with a frustrating rise in bizarre demands and restrictions.

My role as an architect means I must serve my clients through thick and thin. So while I can sympathise with planning departments and have good relationships with many hard working people within them, that sympathy runs dry when poor service and unreasonable demands puts pressure on my clients that can reduce them to tears.

If planning departments are having difficulty keeping up, that’s their problem, not mine – and certainly not my clients’.

Increasingly, the conditions planning departments place on our projects feel like deliberate attempts to impede progress rather than control the quality of construction. When they’re not making unreasonable demands during the application process, they’re implementing borough-wide restrictions under the guise of quality control, which seem to me more like an effort to reduce their workload.

This has also made planning departments weak against the demands of local groups who seek to block new developments. With so much on their plate, planning departments need little reason to refuse an application, so objections that once would have been challenged are now accepted to make way for a less controversial project.

Let’s not forget that negotiations with concern groups also take time and money, which is in short supply. The renewed power of concern groups along with the rise in conservative building restrictions has seeded a palpable surge of nimbyism that threatens to keep our homes stuck in the past.

Even if you do have a build that ought to tick all the boxes, planning departments might suddenly move the goalposts with a series of second conditions that result in us having to provide a ludicrous amount of detail for them to scrutinise. Each new piece of information we need to send or consultant we need to hire slows down the process – which I suspect is half the point.

It boils my blood every time I have to call a client and let them know that their project has been pushed further out through no fault of our own – or worse, it’s been refused on an absurd technicality. Then when I try to call the planning department to fight back for my clients, who knows if they’ll even answer the phone?


What’s most scary to think about is what must be happening to everyone else. We’re a practice with connections, resources and an incredibly high success rate but what about people who attempt to go it alone? If it’s this difficult for us, I can’t imagine what it’s like for individuals and fledgling practices.

If the process had been this disheartening when I first started up, I may not have even stayed in this country. The current state of planning departments doesn’t just upset my clients and make my work difficult, it’s a threat to the future of UK housebuilding.

John Dyer-Grimes