Between October and December 2021, according to UK government statistics 13% of planning applications made to local councils in England were either refused or pulled. When planning applications are rejected it is an indication that the project team has failed to delivered a successful outcome. Typically substantial time and money have been wasted. Work will need to be redone or the project is abandoned.
In this article, we’ll see that it’s not just about the quality of the design that can guarantee planning application success. Even projects that demonstrate architecturally strong designs can can be rejected. Controversial, unconventional, or large projects will inadvertently draw objections. Throughout is essential to maintain effective communication with the council, local stakeholders, and the public.
How planning applications can be granted
Permission for the vast majority of projects is granted under “delegated authority” by a planning officer. This is easiest and most common. According to government statistics, 94 per cent of applications in the year up to March 2019 were granted under delegated authority. The remaining 6% of decisions were made by planning committees. This usually includes large or controversial applications.
For example, according to Eden District Council, planning applications can go to committee for the following reasons:
- Approvals would be contrary to policy
- Applications are of a major, controversial, or sensitive nature
- Applications which have aroused significant public interest on valid planning grounds (public objections)
- An objection from a statutory consultee
- Applications subject to a Parish Council objection on valid planning grounds
- Applications subject to a request by an objector to address the Planning Applications Committee
- Applications requested by a Member to go to Committee
- Applications where the recommendation is contrary to that of a statutory undertaker, for example, the Highways Authority
Planning applications can be refused by the planning committee against recommendation by planning officers if material reasons exist.
How do objections to planning applications impact planning success?
The short answer is that objections to planning applications do not determine planning permissions. Refusal for any application can only be on material grounds.
However, objections to planning applications can impact on the time it takes for the council to approve a planning application. The planning officer needs to consider the merit of each objection. There may need to be a site visit by the officer.
Generally, objections can raise substantial material planning grounds. In that case, the planning officer can refer the planning to the planning committee at the local authority.
Generally, planning applications that go to the planning committee will take much longer to determine. Planning committees meet in monthly intervals. Based on a majority vote, they have the option to reject, approve, and indeed, defer an application.
At times, the planning committee members might need to undertake a site visit. It can take a significant amount of time to coordinate a site visit. All committee members who would eventually vote, would also need to partake in a site visit.
If a planning application is rejected, the decision can be appealed. In a report titled "Refused for Good Reason?", Lichfields analysed reasons given for projects that went to appeal. Most commons reasons provided included landscape/countryside impact (36%); highways issues (24%); impact on character (24%); height/scale (22%).
Lichfields also demonstrated that appeals pushed the regular application timeline from 13 weeks to 19 months. Changes for success at appeal were 65% for those projects which had a approval-recommendation by the officer; and 40% for those which did not have an approval note.
Examples of refused applications
The signs of an unsuccessful application can become apparent long before making a final application. Planning failure, loss of substantial funds, and negative stories in newspapers can be averted with significant early stakeholder engagement. Objections to planning applications are not the driving reason for refusal but part of it.
Gillyflower Farm Education Centre by Sir Tim Smit (link) — Status: Rejected
What’s this project about? Generation of an education centre for horticulture, agronomy and cookery on a Cornish hillside
Who’s the applicant? Sir Tim Smit (Eden Project)
Where was the project? Lostwithiel, Cornwall
What happened? The education centre development was rejected at planning committee seven to four against the project. This was preceded by substantial civic resistance to the project including slogans such as “Orchard my arse” and opposition by the parish council. Smit, the applicant, later expressed surprise for the substantial opposition and noted that more consultation earlier might have given the project “less bumpy ride”.
What was the engagement strategy like? The project produced a video and distributed this during Dec 2020 via the town council website and Facebook pages. The architect collated comments. In July 2021, after a planning application was made, the planning consultant ran another consultation, arranging Zoom sessions, a newsletter, and a project website to save the doomed application.
What reasons were listed for refusal? The development falls within an Area of Outstanding Scenic Beauty. In addition, the development went against the new neighbourhood plan, which barred development in that area. The town council spoke against the project three times.
What was the balance of objections to supporting comments? Of 396 comments, 318 were objections, 60 were in favour.
Dissington Garden Village by Lugano — Status: Rejected
What’s this project about? Development of 1,600+ new homes in a stand alone development near Ponteland, Northumberland.
Who’s the applicant? Lugano Group
Where was the project? Ponteland, Northumberland
What happened? Lugano has held farmland near Ponteland for a long-term development opportunity. In 2017, the council provided a ‘minded-to-approve’ note, however, after the local election, a subsequent planning application was refused in 2019, causing a £10m high court appeal.
What was the engagement strategy like? The application documents are now no longer accessible on the planning portal. At the time, despite extensive activities, the report mentions that 80 people attended a public meeting. A website was generated, too. Nevertheless, the statement of community involvement only listed three public comments and provided nothing near a deep analysis of consultation response.
What reasons were listed for refusal? A core reason for refusal was the change in government. The incoming Conservative government pushed for enhanced protection of green belts throughout the council. Already, a 2013 applications for a much smaller project by the developer already resulted in a publicity-worthy legal fight with the council.
What was the balance of objections to supporting comments? At the time of the 2013 application, the council received 4,310 letters of opposition and 487 letters of support.
Conclusions: Work to understand key concerns before applying
Objections will push up the determining phase, potentially moving the application on to the planning committee. Objections alone cannot be the ground for refusal.
As part of a good “soft landings” strategy for a planning application, early engagement with local authorities and citizens delivers many benefits in understand and handling local concerns. See: Working with the council: How to prepare for productive pre-app meetings
Planning applications are refused on material grounds. Objections can add additional scrutiny of planning issues that could have been considered at design stage can add substantial additional cost at planning stage.
At the point of determination of the planning application, no objection should come as a surprise. If you have done well, you’ll have listed and understood concerns from all local parties, including residents. This will be clear from your Design and Access Statement and the Statement for Community Involvement.
Successful projects pick up on ideas and sentiments of local stakeholders early on to enable a soft landing of a planning application. You don’t want to be in a position where your application is deferred to committee, where it is determined that the project itself has had insufficient levels of community involvement.
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