4th September 2020
Speeding up approvals – the key to getting construction moving?

The construction industry ground to a screeching halt in March as COVID-19 shut down sites across the UK. While recent figures paint an encouraging picture of the industry’s recovery, with the IHS Markit/CIPS Construction Purchasing Managers’ Index registering a score of 58.1, up from 55.3 in June[1], many firms are still playing catch up.

That’s partly why, in recent weeks, much debate has arisen surrounding the government’s plans to accelerate some of the approval processes required before new construction projects can begin.

Government proposals to accelerate approvals

Most construction works will require planning permission before they begin, except for permitted developments. In the past, the planning system has been criticised for being too slow and unnecessarily holding up projects. So, on 2 August, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced proposals for a radical overhaul, including the granting of ‘automatic’ planning permission for developments within so-called ‘growth’ areas of the UK. The government claims that this could halve the time it takes to secure planning permission on larger developments.

Meanwhile, on 21 August, the Department for Transport launched a brand new ‘Acceleration Unit’ with the aim of speeding up the delivery of transport projects across the UK. A major part of the Unit’s role will be to tackle delays to vital transport and infrastructure projects.

Extension of permitted development rights

Meanwhile, changes to permitted development rights, which came into force on 31 August, are also set to remove the need for planning permission on certain projects. Homeowners are now allowed to extend their homes upwards by two storeys without planning permission, while developers will be permitted to demolish vacant commercial and industrial buildings and replace them with residential flats – also without approval from a local authority.

A mixed industry reaction

To say that the government’s proposals have had a mixed reaction is a bit of an understatement. While the Federation of Master Builders stated that measures to make the planning system quicker and more affordable were “welcome”, it warned that it is “vital that high standards in design and build are not compromised as a result[2].”

Other commentators were far more vehement in their disapproval, with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) saying the plans “won’t even scratch the surface when it comes to building the homes we need” and could even “lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing[3].”

Meanwhile, campaign group Rights:Community:Action has launched a legal challenge to the extension of permitted development rights which, it says, are “being rushed through with scant regard for previous consultation and in a period which excludes the input of MPs[4].”

Among the many differing viewpoints, there appears to be a common thread: the fear that building design and quality will be sacrificed at the altar of speedy planning approval, to the benefit of developers and to the detriment of local communities.

Balancing speed with safety and quality

Some new construction projects will also need to secure building regulations approval (not to be confused with planning permission). Britain’s building regulations set out a wide variety of safety and design requirements that must be met before construction work can even begin. And, as past events have taught us, building safety regulations should definitely not be subject to deregulation or an overly hasty approval process.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, a series of investigations into the disaster has resulted in the drafting and subsequent publication of the Building Safety Bill in July 2020. Focusing on high-rise residential buildings, the Bill proposes to significantly tighten up the current approval and inspection regimes through the creation of a new regulator, and by improving the competence and performance of those working within the field of building inspection.

Approvals – there for a reason

The government’s recent pledge to ‘build build build’ and its proposals to radically overhaul the planning system may have the best of intentions – but our planning and regulatory systems are there for a reason, after all. The government will have to strike a delicate balance in order to, on the one hand, maintain the high design and build standards the current planning system is there to uphold, and on the other, promote the speed and flexibility the construction industry needs to continue moving forward in a post-lockdown world.