Fees row cripples planning teams

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Updated regime still no nearer after delays to consultation results. Mark Wilding reports

Nine months after consultation on changes to planning application fees ended, the results are still to appear.

At the time, it seemed ministers were keen to achieve a closer link between planning charges and the cost of dealing with applications. An updated fee regime was originally slated to apply from the start of this month, but it now looks likely to be April next year at the earliest.

The delay is causing serious problems in many planning departments, whose costs of dealing with applications are rarely covered by the existing fee system. Faced with significant budget cuts, local authorities are understandably keen for this situation to be addressed.

“There is a real threat to planners jobs caused by this delay,” warns Tino Hernandez, spokesman for the Royal Town Planning Institute. “The government has failed to deliver on its promise on planning fees and now risks losing vital capacity in planning departments expected to carry out key reforms.”

Westminster City Council has taken matters into its own hands, reaching a voluntary agreement with developers to increase fees in a bid to cover costs (box, opposite).

The ease with which increased fees have been introduced in Westminster suggests developers are prepared to pay more if they know they can expect a better service. 

This is not without some important caveats, though, says British Property Federation chief executive Liz Peace: “We support the idea that planning costs should be recouped through planning fees. We would expect this money to be used to improve the planning service and not just disappear into the local authority’s coffers.

“However, local authorities need clear guidelines on the calculation of fees, which must be kept at sensible levels.”

To this end, the Planning Advisory Service has been working with the Chartered Institute of Public Finances and Accountancy to create a “fee calculator” — a standardised approach to setting fees based on the costs involved at any given authority. Already around two-thirds of English authorities have contributed data to the project.

The service’s principal consultant, Phillipa Silcock, says: “Local authorities are working very hard to be accurate about what their costs are.”

And local fees should provide greater certainty about what developers could expect in return.

“We would like to make sure that local authorities are quite specific about what the fees will be paying for,” she adds.

Locally set fees have the potential to offer a fairer system to those on both sides of the application process. Yet the outcome of the government’s consultation is unknown, the situation for councils across the country remains a state of limbo. Unless, like Westminster, they grow tired of waiting.

Westminster leads the way

Westminster City Council is home to the busiest planning department in the country. Faced with budget cuts, the department has found itself struggling to cope. The problem stems from the fact that fee income covers less than one-third of the cost of dealing with applications at the authority.

In an attempt to tackle the issue, Westminster Property Association has reached an agreement with the council whereby developers will pay a voluntary additional fee of £26,000 for complex applications. The charge came into effect at the start of this month.

Robert Davis, Westminster council’s deputy leader, says: “Communities and Local Government consulted last year on allowing planning authorities to recover their fees on applications. Unfortunately this has not materialised, and we can no longer devote large resources to major, complex schemes. The agreement with the Westminster Property Association allows us to ensure that, for a temporary period, they will get the service level they need to avoid unnecessary delays.”

Developers will enter into a planning performance agreement with the council, which sets a timetable for getting the application to committee.

“Westminster processes more planning applications than any other London borough and a properly resourced planning department is paramount,”
says association chairman David Silverman.

The voluntary fees will apply until 31 March 2012, by which point it is hoped regulations that allow locally set planning fees will be in place. But with details still to emerge, overstretched local authorities across the country will be watching Westminster’s experiment with interest.

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