Clearance Week

22 Jun 22

The current system is struggling to deliver decisions on time, significantly increasing planning risk and delaying vital development.


How do you solve a problem like falling behind on your planning applications? Recently, a number of Planning Departments have been employing a new tactic – Clearance Week – in attempts to resolve their application backlog.

This process involves planning officers switching off from all customer contact for one week (or sometimes more), to focus entirely on determining overdue applications. In the last month, Iceni Projects have been aware of at least 4 separate local authorities to have adopted this approach.[1] A typical automatic response reads:

“Please note officers will be unable to respond this week, as we are undertaking an intensive clearance exercise during which we are prioritising determining out-of-time planning applications. We will endeavour to respond to you from Monday 30th May.”

It is no secret within the industry that planning departments across the UK are struggling to deal with applications within statutory timeframes. [2] The reasons seem to be something of a perfect storm: a forced reduction in planning officers due to lack of adequate funding; difficulties in being able to retain staff (for a number of reasons including pay and significantly increased workloads); a large upturn in planning applications being submitted; and time spent responding to complaints – ironically – delaying officers from ever catching up with spiralling caseloads.

It is this last point which the clearance week seeks to address, allowing officers the time to determine applications away from the increase in emails and phone calls which will inevitably accompany overdue cases. And it does appear to work: several local authorities report that application backlogs were considerably reduced following the exercise.[3]

However, it is also clear that this solution is a sticking plaster which fails to address the root causes of the problem, and is therefore likely to be repeated unless key issues around planning department resourcing and staff capacity are resolved. And it is also something of a last resort. Local authorities themselves have been quick to acknowledge that excluding contact between officers and residents, even temporarily, runs contrary to the core value of public participation enshrined within the UK planning system. [4]

Nevertheless, without more long-term solutions in place, it would not be surprising to see more over-stretched planning departments adopting this approach. What can we do about it? Should planning application fees, and more particularly those generated through Planning Performance Agreements, be ring-fenced so that it can only be spent to service the planning departments? In our experience, many of our clients would be happy to pay for a commitment to good communication and agreed timescales.

The current system is struggling to deliver decisions on time, significantly increasing planning risk and delaying vital development. Whatever your political affiliation or your view of planning, it is clear that this situation requires urgent attention.

[1] London Borough of Brent, London Borough of Ashford, Portsmouth City Council, BCP Council.
[2] Councils Under Pressure – Planning Insight;
Why planning applications are facing significant delays –
[3] Continued planning service improvements: clearance week success – BCP Council
Planning service committed to improving performance – Portsmouth City Council
[4] Why growing numbers of council planning teams are isolating while they tackle application backlogs – Planning Resource.