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Will increasing planning fees improve planning outcomes?

The proposal to increase fees for planning applications, first detailed in the Government’s Housing White Paper, received widespread support from across the industry at the time. In an announcement made last week, a timeline was set out for the introduction of the fee increase, with every one of England’s 337 local planning authorities looking to adopt the new fee structure.

It is widely recognised that many local authority planning teams are struggling with resources and research published by the Department of Communities and Local Government in November 2016 shows that planning fees alone do not cover the cost of running a planning service. Council’s across the country subsidise their planning services from the Council tax base to the tune of £1.24bn nationwide, a figure that’s growing almost £200m a year. This has resulted in planning budgets being squeezed as Council’s continue to make austerity savings as their funding allocations are reduced.

From the early stages of the planning fee consultation, the majority of survey respondents supported the proposed fee increase. Following the Government’s recent announcement, the majority of Councils stated they would seek to use the funds to employ additional development management staff where the pressure to deliver is most intense. The 20% increase in fees, on average, would allow the employment of an additional 2.7 planning department staff per local authority.

But will this level of intervention actually deliver the improved level of change that applicants and developers are looking for?

As a town planner working in daily contact with professional planning and administrative staff in local government all over the UK, in my experience, this injection of funds into planning departments is desperately needed.

An option the Government explored when consulting on the proposals was the possibility of introducing an additional, incentive-based system of funding – where the best authorities would be rewarded for their performance. Whilst there is merit in rewarding performance, I would be concerned that the poorest performing Councils (who are often in most need) will miss out on badly needed funding, reinforcing a cycle of under resourcing and underperformance.

Not only are Council planning staff severely under resourced, they’re faced with an ever-changing environment of national policy documents, regulations, legal considerations and political priorities. Worse, often the most intense pressure on Councils is focused in areas where the scale of development is most pronounced especially the London Boroughs and Greater Manchester.

Whilst the changes will be gratefully received by LPAs over the country, more creative solutions will be required to bring about improved planning services on a macro-scale. It does not address, for example, that Council planning departments currently devote large amounts of time to minor applications, which of course attract small application fees. Contrastingly, an application for 500 dwellings attracts a much larger fee than that for 100 dwellings, whilst the time spent considering the principle of the development is likely to be similar.

The reason that the proposed increase is so widely supported by developers is that communication and consistency in decision making is so highly valued. If as a result of increased resources the development industry can get greater certainty, consistency in decision making and in a more timely manner – then the increase in fees will feel like money well spent.

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Increased fees are essential. It is absurd that Council planning departments should be subsidised in any way. Effectively, council tax payers are indirectly subsidising commercial undertakings (developers etc.). That is unsustainable in an era of increased pressure on local authority finances. Also, a ‘merit’ system for planning departments would be invidious. Some areas may have a larger proportion of more complex applications (e.g. for brown field sites). For developers, it must, in the longer term, be beneficial to ‘pay for quality and consistency’ and for LA planning teams to have the incentive to provide such a service. Roy Chapman, Managing Director, Lynwood Transtec Ltd.

By Roy G Chapman

If this helps reduce the waiting period particularly for those larger developments then this should indeed provide a springboard to cope with the expected surge with applications expected over the next few years.

By John. Westerside

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