Prior approval system flaws revealed by data, by Jamie Carpenter

When plans emerged this summer for a further set of permitted development (PD) rights, a criticism levelled at ministers was that they should not rush to relax more planning controls without properly evaluating the take-up and impact of changes that had only recently been introduced.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that the take-up of PD rights introduced last year was far greater than officials had expected. But until last week, no official data was publicly available to shed any light on how many prior approval applications had been made under the growing number of PD rights, or how local planning authorities had responded to these changes.

New "experimental" data published last week by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) give the first glimpse of the extent to which new PD rights have been taken up. So what do the figures tell us?

First, the data show that the use of some of the new PD rights is indeed well above initial expectations. For example, an impact assessment foresaw up to 190 conversions under the revised office-to-residential PD right per year, but the new figures show that there were 1,068 such prior approval decisions in the second quarter of 2014 alone. However, estimates for the take-up of the larger home extension PD right seem to have been more on the money. The DCLG predicted that 20,000 to 40,000 extensions could pass through the process a year. The data show that more than 7,000 decisions on such prior approval applications were made in the second quarter of 2014, broadly in line with expectations.

Second, the data suggest that the prior approval process is not working as the government expected. Impact assessments made clear that, as the requirements relating to prior approval are much less prescriptive than those relating to planning applications, officials expected refusal rates to be lower than for normal planning applications. For example, the impact assessment for the larger home extension PD right expected 95 per cent of applications to be approved, higher than the 89 per cent approval rate for householder development under the normal planning process.

But the new figures show that 15 per cent of householder extension prior approval applications have in fact been refused, rising to 19 per cent for office conversion prior approval applications and 52 per cent for barn conversion applications. These figures surely reflect many councils' unease over the revised rules, and show that town halls are finding ways to thwart attempts to use the new PD rights.

Nevertheless, the government has welcomed the data, saying they show that measures "have enabled thousands of homeowners to make improvements to their properties, and have got Britain building". This may be the case, but the data also suggest that the prior approval system as it stands is far from perfect. Greater consideration should be given to how the prior approval system can be made to work better for local planning authorities and applicants if it is to be rolled out further.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning

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