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Planning system holds back hospitality

10 July 2006
Planning system holds back hospitality

England's current planning system is stunting the growth of hotels and tourism and costing the industry a fortune, argues Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA).

There's a London hotelier I know whose experience may not be typical, but it is certainly salutary. He has been battling to modernise his existing hotel by gutting the property completely in order to reconstruct it with fewer but larger rooms and a whole range of new facilities.

Negotiating with the landlord was bad enough, but negotiating with the planners has been even worse. The project started at least three years ago. He's just heard that it cannot begin until next year because of further delays in the planning approval process.

The cost of this delay is difficult to calculate. Building costs are rising inexorably; architects', surveyors' and lawyers' fees are mounting; the loss of profits is costly - and permanent; and marketing plans are being held up.

The expansion has taken place in spite of the planning delays which attend most new hotel construction and development schemes. How much easier would it be if the planning controls were made easier and less onerous?

That's why the BHA welcomes the interim report on the planning system in England by Kate Barker, a member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee.

Her report reinforces warnings made by businesses in all industries that the red tape involved in planning decisions is damaging Britain's competitiveness and is adding extra cost to projects.

The cost of planning fees alone is calculated to be some £200m a year, with 'hundreds of millions' also being spent on consultants' and lawyers' fees.

It points out that the time taken to get planning permission is lengthening and that planning problems are one of the top six concerns of companies thinking of investing in the UK.

It even mentions the hotel industry when it says that the system deters new competitors from entering the sector.

This is not good news for an industry that depends on innovation and constant re-invention - one that has to keep up-to-date with international competition.

Ms Barker noted that, despite recent improvements in the planning process, a survey of members of the Confederation of British Industry found that 69% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the record of local government in improving the planning service.

One of the problems of planning is that too many local authorities have a piecemeal approach to tourism developments in their area, with no strategic plan that would guide developers and planning authorities in the provision of tourism services.

With no statutory duty to provide a tourism plan, the industry's interests frequently go by default. So it's good news that the government recently issued a good practice guide on planning for tourism, applicable in England and Wales from September 1, which aims to help planners to understand tourism and hospitality better.

A Planning Bill currently going through the Scottish parliament will hopefully make the planning process for bigger projects easier to negotiate.

Local authorities need to recognise that, without a plan, tourism businesses will continue to suffer from delay and procrastination along with needless (and costly) restrictions on developments on top of the usual regulations surrounding new construction projects.

Little surprise that many hoteliers are wary of the planning process.

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