Resources Resources Resources

As is the English way, it’s rather more nuanced than Money Money Money. And it’s hardly an Abba singalong, but speak to someone with practical experience of the operation of the planning system about what is needed to improve its operation: these three words constantly ring out – way above any chatter about the changes proposed in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill  or by way of the Government’s wider policy reforms.

So it was good to see this week’s DLUHC consultation document Stronger performance of local planning authorities supported through an increase in planning fees (28 February 2023).

This consultation seeks views on improving the performance of English local planning authorities by increasing planning fees, “building capacity and capability” and “introducing a more robust performance regime

Now you have responded to the last consultation process, you can start on this one! The deadline is 25 April 2023.

The document sets out the Government’s threefold strategy:

  • Financial support

this consultation proposes an increase in planning application fees for major applications by 35% and for all other applications by 25%, together with an indexation proposal for fees to be adjusted annually in-line with inflation.”

  • Additional resource

This consultation outlines how we are working with representatives across the planning and development sector to design and deliver a programme of support for building planning capacity and capability within local planning authorities and to seek views on how we can increase capacity and capability in the planning system as quickly as possible.”

  • Improved performance

This consultation therefore also proposes a new approach to how the performance of local planning authorities is measured across a broader set of quantitative and qualitative measures

Some examples of proposed fee increases:

Subject to the outcome of the consultation process, the increases will be introduced this summer and will be reviewed within three years.

The consultation raises various specific questions, such as:

  • Whether there are examples of bespoke or ‘fast track’ services which have worked well or could be introduced for an additional fee – and of any schemes that have been particularly effective
  • whether there should be a commitment on the part of authorities to ringfence the fees for spending within their planning departments (surely a no-brainer – and one to be firmly policed).
  • whether the ability for a “free go” repeat application be limited or removed
  • whether the fee for retrospective applications should be doubled.

In terms of increasing resources in the planning system, the consultation document says this:

43. We want to support and work with local planning authorities to make sure that planners and the planning system are valued, and that there is a culture of proactive delivery, pride in performance and a clear understanding of high-quality customer service; as well as being ready to adapt to the new measures and ways of working methods proposed in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

44. We must also promote a broader understanding of the value of planning in supporting the country in its Levelling Up ambitions as a positive driver of sustainable economic growth and the development and building of homes and places that communities can be proud of.

45. We have created a cross-sector working group with representatives from local government, the private sector and professional bodies to design and deliver a programme of support to build capacity and capability strategy across local planning authorities. This programme will seek to provide the direct support that is needed now, deliver upskilling opportunities and further develop the future pipeline into the profession in order to continually improve the quality of service delivered and resilience of local planning authorities.

46. To support the development of our planning capacity and capability strategy and programme we would like to hear your views and experience of the specific challenges in recruiting and retaining planning professionals with the right skills and experience and the best ways in which government, working with professional bodies, can boost the capacity and capability of local planning authorities. It is our intention to carry out numerical research in the coming months to support this important strand of work, but in the meantime we would welcome any data and insight that you would like to provide.”

In terms of increasing the performance of local planning authorities:

48. As we propose to introduce measures to increase fee income relating to planning services specifically, we want to amend the existing metrics that measure performance of local planning authorities for speed of decision-making so that local planning authorities are primarily held to account for the number of applications that are determined within the statutory determination periods rather than through an extension of time agreement. We also propose to tighten the Planning Guarantee period for non-major applications.

we propose that where the statutory determination period is 8 weeks the Planning Guarantee should be set at 16 weeks and where the statutory determination period is 13 weeks (or 16 weeks for Environmental Impact Assessment developments) the Planning Guarantee should be retained at 26 weeks.”

[What are your experiences of the Planning Guarantee? The only time I’ve seen someone apply for their money back (with every justification), the local planning authority refused to progress the section 106 agreement until the applicant had agreed in writing to waive his rights to rely on it!]

We propose that the performance of a local planning authority for speed of decision making should be primarily assessed on the percentage of applications that are determined within the statutory determination period, not an agreed extended period of time. We also believe that the performance of local planning authorities for speed of decision-making should be assessed separately for the following application types:

  • Major applications (10 or more new dwellings, or site area of 0.5 hectares or more and the number of dwellings is unknown; provision of a non-residential building or buildings where the floor space created by the development is 1000sqm or more; development on a site with an area of 1 hectare or more)
  • Non-Major applications (excluding householder applications) (anything smaller than the criteria for major development, including residential development of between 1 and 9 new dwellings on a site with an area less than 1 hectare, or site area is less than 0.5 hectares and the number of dwellings is unknown; non-residential development where the floor space created is less than 1000sqm or where the site area is less than 1 hectare; or other types of non-major development such as change of use)
  • Householder applications (development within the curtilage of a dwelling house which requires an application for planning permission and is not a change of use)
  • Discharge of conditions
  • County matters (minerals and waste) applications

The document seeks views on the suitability of these individual metrics:

It suggests that there could be a standardised “customer satisfaction survey” (sigh, is “customers” really the right word?).

What do you think? I was quite encouraged by the various proposals although do they really go far enough? I suspect that the fee increases are pitched about right but how much extra money will the Government be committing to this essential service?

The document asks whether there any other application types or planning services which are not currently charged for but should require a fee or for which the current fee level or structure is inadequate. There are no fees at present for listed building consent applications – not mentioned in the consultation document. Is that right? The fee for section 73 applications is very light – currently £234 – when in reality the work involved can be extensive. The consultation does ask as to the appropriate fee for the LURB’s proposed section 73B procedure but not about our familiar friend section 73. Should the fee be higher for EIA development – I would have thought so? (and, by the way, whilst outside the remit of this consultation, there is still no visible progress on introducing fees in relation to planning appeals).

Separately, should there be greater control over non-statutory fees for planning performance agreements and for pre-application advice? I increasingly hear tales of woe from applicants as to large fees paid only for advice to be provided very late – and then sometimes reversed once the application has been submitted.

I know that the information gathering in relation to the metrics will entail further work on the part of already busy staff but it will give a much clearer picture than anyone has at the moment – huge delays are masked by routinely agreed time extensions. And the requirement, for instance, for data to be supplied on the “percentage of committee decisions to refuse against officer recommendation that are subsequently allowed at appeal” should certainly focus minds….

Sam Stafford has done wonders via his 50 Shades of Planning podcast series to shine a life on what “life on the frontline” for planning department staff can be like – I recommend his 25 February 2023 Life on the frontline II episode. In the light of these proposals,  Life on the frontline III next year will make for even more interesting listening.

Simon Ricketts, 3 March 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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