Shaking up the planning application process: A step too far?

The Government has announced a consultation on proposals to radically reform the planning system through the introduction of a competition-based model, whereby local authorities can compete to process applications up until the point of decision. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, claims that the changes will speed up the planning process by allowing applications to be fast-tracked through handling by those councils considered to be more ‘efficient’, with the incentive for these authorities being the fees they receive for this work. The plans also suggest that future increases in council fees should be linked to the performance of local authorities on planning applications in terms of speed and ‘quality of decisions’ (your guess is as good as ours).

Whilst no doubt a well-intentioned approach to ‘solving’ the planning application problem, Mr Clark’s suggestions will set alarm bells ringing throughout the offices of developers, planning consultancies, and public affairs companies alike. Of course, we don’t disagree with Mr Clark that there’s a problem. There are a number of local authorities within the North West, and indeed across England and Wales, that simply aren’t responsive enough in terms of processing applications. We all know which local authorities they are, but can our jobs really be made any easier by, through this proposed mechanism, telling them exactly how incompetent we think they are?

All this is before we even start to consider the impact that asking another authority to process an application will have on the elected members of the determining council. If there’s a sure-fire way to irritate a planning committee, it’s by making it look as though you don’t trust them or have something to hide. If there’s one thing we preach in public affairs, it’s to try and keep the decision-makers on-side.

In reality, the political upset and potential fallout from a proposal like this means that, even if the changes go ahead, developers aren’t particularly likely to adopt this approach, which begs the question, ‘why bother’? As a colleague of mine has just pointed out to me as I write this, “If Tony Blair didn’t introduce competition into it then it probably wasn’t worth it” – perhaps one point of view for Mr Clark to consider.

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