Is the UK permitting system the best suited to developers?

Following the launch of our international insights map, we interviewed Alan Cheyne, a director at Hyphen, about his experience of permitting in London…

Q: How does London compare with the rest of England?

A: Quality varies across the boroughs but in the areas we are most active such as Westminster, City of London, Kensington and Chelsea, responses to planning applications are dealt with much more quickly and efficiently and I think this is because these councils are better placed to recruit the best people. You get good feedback from the planners on an informal basis and I haven’t found that in the rest of England – with a few exceptions.

Q: In your experience, do you feel that England is more or less bureaucratic than the rest of Europe?

A: The important thing to understand about England is that there are broadly two different types of permits: planning (which deals with the right to develop) and building control (which deals with aspects of safety within buildings).

It’s possibly unique to the UK to have this split but it makes it easier if you’re a developer. Many places in Europe (such as the Netherlands) have an all-in-one permit for certain types of buildings. As a result, you’re dealing with, not only the right to develop, but with the building standards at the same time, which can be complicated.

In the UK, we’ve defined the fact that planning is subjective so it’s somewhat speculative. Building control is seen as far more objective so, if you can get consent to build something then you will be able to build it – it’s just a matter of making sure you’re doing the right things. I think this encourages speculative development.

To conclude, the simple answer is that England is substantially less bureaucratic than the rest of Europe.

Q: Can you recall a particularly challenging permitting situation in London?

A: There was a grade II listed historic building in Old Bond Street that had a particularly ornate interior. It used to be an art gallery and the client wanted to convert it into a retail space so, our challenge was to create a suitable environment from which to trade. In order to do this, we needed to extend into the basement and build new staircases. Eventually, we also converted the upper floors to residential and installed a new lift shaft.

It was important for us to bring out the character of the building because it was one of the main reasons the client was interested in being a tenant. We overcame this challenge by working closely with a very good heritage consultant and by engaging the local authority at an early stage. By involving them in the design process, we were able to demonstrate that we were interested in protecting the historical character of the building (and its assets), rather than just developing it for the client’s commercial benefit.

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