A series of proposed changes have been put forward to improve the speed and efficiency of the planning process.
The proposals include introducing competition into the handling of planning applications, giving applicants a choice; and offering a fast track application service. Ministers say the changes, which are out for consultation, will tackle the lack of incentive for councils to improve and speed up their planning process.
Applicants would have the option to pay for a speeded up application, for an additional fee – similar to the way passport applications can be rushed through for an extra charge. And there would be the choice of giving an application to a competing council, or even an approved third party processing organisation, which would handle an application up to the point of local decision.
“Council planning departments play a vital role in getting local housebuilding off the ground, but for too long they have had no incentive to get things done quickly or better, resulting in drawn out applications and local frustration,” said communities secretary Greg Clark.
“These proposals will be a boost for housebuilders looking to build much needed new homes for hard working families and first time buyers, and for local people looking to get a planning permission for home improvements through their local council quicker.”
Planning minister Brandon Lewis said the proposals would “link any future increases in application fees to councils’ performance”.
The government reckons there are savings of up to 20% to be made, for competitively tendered or shared services.
The government announcement has received support from housebuilding bodies and major construction companies. Peter Andrew, deputy chairman of the Home Builders Federation, commented: “Speeding up and reducing the cost of the applications process will in particular assist SME developers, more of whom we desperately need to get building if we are to continue to increase output overall.”
Jason Lowes, a partner at Rapleys commented: “In our experience, many developers would be happy to pay larger fees if that guaranteed a more efficient service. Generally the most important factors for developers going through the planning system is certainty and timely decision making, and they will be hoping these proposals will deliver this.”
“However, many will remember instances where new charges have been introduced that have not resulted in across the board improvements in service, for example charges for pre-application advice.”
“Some local authorities do already outsource at least some of the processing of planning applications to external consultancies, so plans to open the market up aren’t necessarily revolutionary, not least as it appears that the final decision will still rest with the local authority within which the proposal sits. However, if, when the full details of these reforms are put forward, different local authorities are able to process each other’s planning applications, that would represent something of a sea change to the system.”
Sharing of services is not a new concept for London boroughs. Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster already share a number of services, including libraries, adult social care, leisure, highways and transport. The three are on target to save a combined £40 million by 2015/16.
LPA Perspective: This proposal certainly creates plenty of questions, around who will see through a planning application. If the administrative parts of the application process are outsourced, then that should leave the work of negotiating and finessing more complex schemes, to local officers. But what happens, for example, when a scheme is presented to a planning committee? Will the external subcontractor need to be on hand, or will the local planning officer need to do his homework in order to present?
For developers, it is all about certainty, and if a modest extra payment sees their proposals dealt with in a timely fashion, some will certainly be comfortable bearing the cost.
The idea of choosing alternative authorities to handle applications will also be welcome. Some London boroughs continue to be viewed poorly, in terms of their ability to manage planning applications.
The proposals are likely to get a warm welcome at the three London boroughs who are already sharing services. The trio are hitting, even exceeding their savings targets; bringing their planning teams together could save them a substantial additional sum.