Following a joint article by the Chancellor and Communities Secretary in the Financial Times on the government’s proposed reforms on planning, and the extensive media debate seen in recent days, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) is today releasing the initial results of its planning survey completed by more than 5,300 companies. The findings show that business confidence and investment intentions are dramatically affected by the planning process.

The business organisation is calling for a reasonable debate on the issue and hopes to remind pressure groups and ministers that the current complexity, cost and uncertainty of the planning system remain a major barrier to local economic growth in every part of the UK.

The BCC supports the broad aim of the government’s efforts to simplify the national planning framework. The planning system must be rebalanced so that it favours responsible development and allows companies on existing industrial estates, in cities, and in established rural business areas to invest in premises, jobs, and growth potential. The leading business organisation  believes that the government’s proposals will result in modest but welcome improvements to the system – and that pressure group threats of a ‘huge political battle’* against the proposals are misplaced.

A new survey of over 5,300 businesses in Chamber membership reveals:

Businesses with the potential to expand have little confidence that the planning system responds to proposals in a fair or even-handed way

• Seven in ten (69%) experienced applicants (who have been through the planning process on multiple occasions) believe planning decisions are taken on political grounds, rather than on the merits of the application itself.
• Over half (54%) believe that planning committees make decisions contrary to the advice of planning officers.
• 73% of applicants say they have not been approached by a local authority about their views or opinions on the planning process.

There is significant ‘depressed demand’ from businesses with an interest in expanding their premises – demand which will continue to be stifled without planning reform.

• Among those businesses who have never applied for planning permission, more than one in ten (11%) had not done so because of cost, complexity, delays, and/or a belief that they would simply not be granted permission.

There is a real need for a simplified national framework. The current system leaves companies facing contradictory outcomes, additional costs, and barriers to growth in many areas.

• Nearly three-quarters (72%) of experienced applicants say that the planning advice they are given is inconsistent across local authority boundaries.

Commenting on the survey’s findings on his first day as Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, said:

“Our survey findings clearly show that the planning process is a barrier for companies of all sizes – and that in some cases, it’s holding back the economic growth we so desperately need.

“We need to get the debate on planning reform away from hysteria and back to common sense. Businesspeople understand that planning has a purpose, and that developers can’t just build anything, anywhere. It’s not a case of throwing out the rulebook to grow the economy at any cost. Yet there’s clear evidence that the system is too complicated, too costly, and too uncertain. It creates mistrust among businesses, undermines investment, and holds back our recovery.”

“We all want to protect areas of great beauty and natural diversity, yet business's experience of planning on even the most modest developments shows that the system and its bureaucracy are a serious brake on economic growth, prosperity and jobs.”

“It cannot be right that sensible proposals to reform and improve the planning system are portrayed as changes that will lead to urban sprawl, environmental degradation and shoddy buildings.”

Quotes from businesses surveyed by the BCC:

Lack of business confidence in the system:

• “There are too many political decisions in the Planning process rather than those based on logic and common sense”
• “Planning committees are populated by NIMBYs who have no knowledge of the planning process”
• “Planners lack any real business skills and are not qualified to judge business viability, and, this allows elected members to judge the scheme and they generally have their own political agenda.”
• “All too often it's the vocal minority that get listened to and not the silent majority. You only have to look at the furore around renewable technology to see people don't think any bigger than what affects them directly. They are all happy using electricity as long as the power station is in someone else's back yard.”

Discouraged demand and rejection:

• “I took a decision to limit the size (of my business) to avoid having to make a planning application”
• “They refused planning on the basis there were contradictory statements in the rules and they wouldn't be criticised if they played safe and refused. Even our employing more staff if we had the building did not persuade them.”
• “We were held back from employing more staff.”

Complexity and inconsistency in the system:

• “It's a real lottery from authority to authority.”
• “There needs to be a combination of national, regional and local policies on land use to ensure development takes place in the appropriate locations. The Government are trying to address this with the presumption in favour of sustainable development, but the damage done by the current uncertainty will take ten years to correct.”
• “Having negotiated approval relative to one issue, they came up with a new reason for rejection - which had not been mentioned before. This happened five times - over a two year period.”