Are Extension of time being abused by Local Planning Authorities?

I appreciate that this is a controversial topic and I think it is important to stress that I have been in both public and private sector roles agreeing to extend the time for determination of planning application.

In theory I am fully supportive of agreeing extensions of time (EoT), they allow for additional time for unforeseen issues to be resolved to the benefit of ALL parties. I also agree that neither the applicant nor the Local Planning Authority gain anything from a refusal purely because the target date is approaching. I understand that the theory of extending the time is to provide an opportunity for any outstanding matters to be resolved positively.

I also appreciate that the success of a planning department is measured on the percentage of applications determined “within time” so this adds pressure to LPAs. In previous roles as a Local Authority Planning officer, I have been in meetings where I have been told to make sure any applications close to the target date have an appropriate EoT. Although I have to admit this never felt particularly comfortable, I always felt that the approach should be to try to determine planning applications within the target date and agree an extension to time as a last resort.

In my opinion for the sake of the integrity of the planning system, EoT should be agreed in exceptional circumstances and efforts should be made by both sides to meet the statutory timescale wherever possible.  However unfortunately more and more I simply do not feel that this is the case. I appreciate that we are unprecedented times and the way in which people are working (i.e more flexibly and remotely) may take time to adjust for some. However, an email 12 weeks and 5 days into a major application requesting an extension of time as the officer needs to consider information submitted by a statutory consultee within the 21 day consultation period doesn’t seem like an appropriate use of the systems. I should point out that this was despite a number of emails querying the exact issues raised and enquiring if any further information was required. The officer was “most disappointed” when I refused to agree to the extension as I considered the request completely unreasonable.

This example of what I consider to be an abuse of the system is not unique, I have many, as I am sure others across the industry do. One of my most surprising was pre-covid, a request for an EoT 2 weeks after an application was made valid due to “officer workload”. Again, I fear this is not the intention behind legislation to allow EoT in the first place.

Surely if officers are so overworked that they know 6 weeks before the target date that they will not be able to determine the application “on time” this should be highlighted and addressed with proper resourcing rather than covered up with an extension to the target date.

This being said, the most concerning aspect of the process, to me, are situations where decisions are held at ransom until an extension to time is signed by the applicant. Being on the receiving end of an email with a reminder that “those applications without agreed extension to time that have gone over the target date go to the back of the queue” is not in the spirit of good planning and honestly it’s an insult to the planning profession!

Having said this I agree that there are a number of legitimate reasons for the process, where delays are unavoidable on both sides of the planning process or where agreeing an EoT is completely appropriate. Planning House recently agreed an extension for an Additional Environmental Approval (AEA) to allow the LPA to secure delegated powers to issue a decision. Therefore, rather than gaining the approval by default as a result of going “over time” the EOT was agreed. In this instance based on the provisions in the act, approval would have been granted, if the LPA did not determine the application within the requisite period.  In this instance extending the time was beneficial to the LPA and as ex-LPA Officer’s we appreciate the unique situation the Council were in.

However, being a huge advocate for engagement at the pre-application stage, I can’t help but think improving the quality of the offer at pre-application stage would avoid the ‘late surprises’ and unexpected delays.

In my experience the industry has become disillusioned with the preapplication process with many of my clients choosing not engage in it because it is expensive and responses are vague. They feel they gain nothing. In my opinion poor pre-application engagement is as a result of under resourced planning departments.

Commitment to meaningful pre-application from all parties would identify issues and look for solutions before the clock had even started on the application.  This issue should be addressed in the reforms to the planning system as it’s a simple way to speed up the process. Until then it’s a case of “sign an extension to time or got to the back of the queue for a decision”

Helen Heward, Associate