Planning Extensions of Time – A Useful Last Resort, or a Damaging Smokescreen

In theory, extensions of time form a valid and important part of the planning application or prior approval process. That there are circumstances where extensions are  legitimately needed, before a planning decision can be made is not in dispute. A consultant operating with integrity will agree to an extension where an unforeseen or external reason for a delay exists. this is true, even when approval by default could apply.

Over a third of ‘non major development’ planning decisions took more than the statutory eight weeks to decide

‘Unforeseen’ being the key factor. Statistics published by the UK government for planning performance in England are telling. In the 24 months to the end of June 2022 over a third of ‘non major development’ planning decisions took more than the statutory eight weeks to decide (1). In these cases, an extension of time was granted by the applicant to the council in question. However, over 10% of applications where an extension of time was granted were then not decided within the extension period.

With comparable annual results over the last two years, can we really cite the extension of time route as the last resort it ought to be?

Are Extensions of Time always a last resort?

SF Planning represent a small proportion of planning professionals, but this situation is far from unique to us. Our consultants regularly see little or no communication from an LPA until a deadline is approaching. Often, an LPA’s first (rather than last) resort is an extension of time request. Frequently, this is after multiple attempts at contact by our consultants.

For context, it’s important to recognise the pressure faced by planning departments, which are measured on their ability to make determinations within agreed timescales. In-time applications for the quoted period above would count for almost 90% of all determinations, an impressive figure on face-value.  The concern for developers, planning consultants and the public is that extensions of time are often viewed as a foregone conclusion, used to skew an LPA’s performance.

Applicants being held to ransom

One option to exert some influence on the system is for applicants to simply refuse a request for an extension. However, there are  repercussions to cosider: An LPA who, having already missed their eight-week deadline, now sees no benefit in prioritising the application. This typically leaves out-of-time applications languishing at the back of ‘the queue’. The planner is now incentivised to focus on those applications that can still be determined within target.

An example of this is a recent conversation with a Senior Planning Officer regarding a planning application that SF Planning submitted six months previously. Following submission, we received no meaningful correspondence from the LPA. The application was eventually reallocated to the officer who, before looking at it, requested an extension of time. the reason? To enable ‘sufficient time’ for the application to be assessed. This request was followed by a statement that, if granted the extension, the officer would be able to assess the application ‘within a reasonable timeframe’. The worrying inference in this situation is that the applicant is being held to ransom. Would refusal of the extension result in a deliberately unreasonable timeframe? By manipulating the process of extensions of time in this way, the integrity of the planning system is brought into question.

The solution is not a ‘quick fix’

We are aware of some councils formalising how planners submit requests for extensions to applicants. Any consideration given to the current process is welcome. However, will formalisation effect real change? It has the potential to engage a planner in giving real consideration into the reasons an extension is necessary, but if if those reasons are consistently a lack of departmental resource, rather than exceptional circumstances? If this is the case, it’s time to recognise that extensions of time have evolved into something they were not designed to be.

Extensions of time have become a natural fallback for a service which is increasingly understaffed, and underfunded. All while navigating a set of protracted and excessively complicated administrative procedures. In masking the real issues, extensions of time are compounding a problem that must be addressed at a national level.

If your planning application is not progressing as you would hope, SF Planning can help you to navigate the process.

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