The Government has offered all Local Planning Authorities in England & Wales the option to increase planning application fees by 20 per cent from July this year in exchange for their undertaking to spend the additional income on improving planning departments' service and performance.
The conditional offer has been made as the Neighbourhood Planning Bill - on which consultation was launched last September - makes headway through its latest parliamentary stage this spring, with a view to enactment on the statute books later this year.
The increase in planning fees will be on an ‘opt-in' basis and it is anticipated will come in to effect for applications lodged from July 2017 onwards. However, the 20 per cent increase remains conditional on local authorities' buy-in - not just opt-in - and commitment that the money raised by the increase will be ring-fenced for boosting the efficacy of their planning departments and not diverted to fund other council service areas or projects.
Initial soundings from local authorities have been positive and it would be surprising if there isn't a 100 per cent opt-in from local planning chiefs - especially in growth areas of East and South East England such as ours where development pressures have seen local authority planning departments overstretched for over a decade.
This increased fees for service and performance improvement initiative has, broadly, been welcomed by commercial planning agents and those with professional development interests in the sector. In its briefing to the House of Lords in January on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, the Royal Town Planning Institute said on the matter:
"..the RTPI would support the Bill going further to address the question of resources for local authority planning directly. The RTPI supports the option of local authorities being able to charge higher fees for planning applications providing certain criteria are met. These would have to include a cast-iron commitment to reinvest greater income in the planning process for the benefit of applicants; which in turn could include information technology; joint working across city regions or counties; and training of staff towards professional accreditation and continuing professional development. There would indeed to demonstrate year on year increasing (or continued high) performance."
Additional revenue generated from the planning application fees boost would go some way to filling vacant posts and recruiting more planning department staff but a nationwide shortage of qualified planners has been widely acknowledged by all in the property and development sectors for years.
Such a paucity of available planning talent is acute in the high development regions served by served by our four offices - Peterborough, Cambridge, Huntingdon and Bury St Edmunds. Local authorities here are competing for planning talent with each other and against the private sector.
Austerity pressures on local government finances for a number of years have seen a tendency to hold open vacant posts - with the use of third party consultancy staff to plug the gap or to increase the caseloads of local authorities' own in-house planning departments to unrealistic proportions.
There is marked variation in the performance of planning authorities with which we deal on clients' behalf but, in any of these authorities, service improvements must focus on the quality of the decision-making as well as the speed.
Support to streamline the planning system needs to improve the quality of initial advice which informs the decision-making of all parties in the process. This, in turn, will make the whole process less time consuming in reducing the need for to-ing and fro-ing, elongated negotiations and the volume of appeals - all of which, if reduced, ultimately, will improve development delivery.
With the anticipated 100 per cent opt-in by local authorities to increase fees, it will be interesting to see on what resources the money will be used: smarter technology or systems and administration or on human resources?
In our experience, it's hard to beat access to planning officers and face to face interaction between planning peers has never been more important.
While the potential for improvement in the planning service as a result of focused expenditure is evident, this does not have a direct impact on the performance of statutory consultees in the quality and timing of their responses to planning applications. This is an area of delay which is, increasingly and frustratingly, becoming the experience of practitioners.
For more information about Barker Storey Matthews Planning & Residential Land sales professional services, see www.bsm.uk.com/planning-&-residential-land-sales.