Leading City property lawyer describes ‘worrying lack of common sense’ in the planning process as housing minister offers to intervene on behalf of housebuilders

A leading City solicitor has responded to comments made by the housing minister, Gavin Barwell MP, offering to raise housebuilders’ concerns with local authorities, by saying that there is a ‘worrying lack of common sense’ in the planning process.

The minister told housebuilders, while on a visit to Cannes, to “come and see me” if they want help.

Rufus Ballaster, a Partner and Head of Property at Carter Lemon Camerons LLP, said that the shortage of housing stock is a problem with which England has grappled for decades.

“Problems in the planning process are well-known. Getting planning permission for a relatively simple scheme – say ten new homes on a site previously comprising one or more large houses with plenty of garden space – can take years and cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in professional fees”, said Rufus.

This was, he said, compounded by the notorious unpredictability of the planning system. “The paid specialists in the relevant Council often support a scheme, which is rejected by Committee, so the applicant has to decide whether or not to take the matter to appeal. On appeal, a specialist decides the application and the quality of decision is very good, but the delay can scupper many schemes.”

According to Rufus, other problems are abundant and there is a “worrying lack of common sense” applied in the process.

He said there were many examples where the firm’s clients would have built more residential units if they had not experienced hold-ups in the planning system, citing examples including onerous requirements for bat surveys and council planning committees refusing developments without good grounds.

Rufus added: “These are not examples dug out of decades of otherwise smooth experiences for residential development clients of Carter Lemon Camerons LLP. They are recent examples from a list which the firm could expand upon significantly.

“The success stories in the planning process for clients of this firm have tended to be on appeal or by use of one of the many ‘permitted development relaxations various governments have introduced to try to get housing units build without the full rigours of the planning process getting in the way – office to residential conversions for example.”

However, planning is only one of the problems facing developers, according to Rufus.

“What seems to be a very real problem is that planning is only one obstacle to development which is in state hands.

“There are also issues related to highways and private roads owned by local authorities or other state bodies.

“Covenants also exist against having more than one ‘single family dwelling’ on land ripe for development, which a local authority or other state body has the benefit of and wants to exploit to get a payment from the developer to induce relaxation of that covenant, as well as land owned by parts of the state which are left empty or have a high price put on them which deters the development of that land for housing,” added Rufus.

He took the view that all of this does not event start to address what he described as “another huge problem”; making the maths of property development work when land values are as high as they are and percentages of affordable housing demanded in significant schemes are high.

Rufus said: “If the hope is that private home builders will ease the housing shortage, barriers should not be raised and profitability should not be trashed.”