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The Department for Communities and Local Government has given local authorities approximately £68 million a year to improve the handling of planning applications and in particular to speed them up. While authorities are taking more decisions on major housing schemes within 13 weeks, the true extent of the improvement across the development process is not as clear as it could be.

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The combination of the extra grant and the setting by the Department of targets has encouraged local authorities to give a higher priority to taking speedier decisions. The Department’s figures on processing planning applications for large housing developments show a significant improvement, with 67 per cent of decisions being reached in 13 weeks in 2007-08, up from 37 per cent in 2002-03. But the extent of improvement across the development process is less clear because the Department’s performance measure excludes the time spent before an application’s submission and after its subsequent approval, both of which can be substantial.

The Department does not collect data on how long it took to reach these decisions. The National Audit Office found that, for the 11 authorities we visited, decisions to reject were taken more quickly than those to approve, with approval taking on average 25 weeks for 100 cases which we examined from 2006-07.

To try to help speed up and improve the process, the Department has successfully encouraged planning authorities to hold pre-application discussions with developers. There can, however, be a lack of clarity over the purpose of these discussions and, as a result, authorities take an inconsistent approach in handling these meetings, reducing their effectiveness. For example, Authority staff may lack the experience or seniority required, and there can be a lack of continuity of staffing between these discussions and the application itself.

“The Department has given local authorities a greater financial incentive to reach quicker decisions on planning applications, with more decisions on major housing schemes now being taken within 13 weeks than five years ago. Whether the speed of development has increased is less clear. The Department should use the data collected by the National Audit Office as a benchmark for assessing its future effectiveness in improving the planning process.”

Notes for Editors

1. As part of the NAO’s examination, it reviewed the case history of 100 major residential applications (i.e. developments of 10 or more homes) approved in 2006-07 by 11 Authorities, providing for the first time reliable data on how long the whole process takes.

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office


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