During this continued economic downturn, it is essential that we find new ways to facilitate and encourage growth.
The development planning sector is critical in this regard, particularly the service provided by local authorities. Rapid consideration and determination of planning applications provides certainty to the sector, can save millions of pounds through avoiding delays in development and actually facilitate growth.
However, it is now more than a year since the Department for Communities and Local Government opened a consultation with a range of proposals for reforming the planning application fee system.
The proposed reforms sought to give local authorities greater opportunity to recover the costs of providing this statutory service and are vital to the future of many planning departments in local authorities.
Westminster City Council currently handles more than 12,000 planning applications every year, the most of any local authority in the country. Nearly 50 per cent of these applications are for listed building consents, conservation area consents and tree applications - none of which are chargeable to the service user.
When joined with the non-rechargeable requirement for plan making, a requirement which is essential if local authorities are to meet the requirements of the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework and to tie into the forthcoming neighbourhood plans, the restrictions result in the City Council and the local taxpayer having to subsidise the service by more than £5 million every year.
The present one-size-fits-all model also means that whilst a number of local authorities, where there are less considerations required to determine applications or less historic buildings, are able to generate a surplus, other local authorities are forced to provide the service at a loss.
Many planning departments are proud of their role in supporting, nurturing and encouraging development. For example, in Westminster close working between the department, applicants and landowners sees more than 90 per cent of the applications receive consent every year within established and visible timescales - an achievement which has been made despite having seen a 22 per cent increase in applications since 2009.
The certainty this approach provides is recognised by developers, a point emphasised by Westminster having received the support of many major developers and landowners who are prepared to pay an additional fee for a quicker decision and back the introduction of a fairer, localised fee charging system.
However, the certainty can only continue with a sufficiently staffed and resourced planning department. Without financial reform, many planning departments will reach, if they are not already at, a tipping point which will see them reduce staff, be unable to handle the volume of applications they receive within agreed timescales and be forced to reduce the quality of service they are able to offer. This will in turn have an impact upon economic growth.
To use the example of listed buildings, most works on listed buildings cost many thousands of pounds to carry out. Not only would a small charge for an application - which is likely to be as low as a couple of hundred pounds - be insignificant for the applicant, it would remove the burden of the cost being met by local taxpayers for what is a statutory duty and a service which they may not use.
Listed building, conservation area and tree applications also require specialist staff. With local authorities being required to continue to make significant savings over the coming months, it is important to ensure this specialism is retained if we are to avoid compromising on our heritage.
Amending the fee charging proposals would be entirely in keeping with the government’s commitment to free local authorities from centrally-imposed regulations and devolve power to the local level. This must not be taken by irresponsible local authorities as a means to raise money, but to charge appropriately and responsibly to cover their costs for the delivery of an efficient planning service based upon the principle that the service user should be asked to pay for the service they receive.
Encouraging the government to go ahead with the approach – with the added inclusion of fees for listed buildings - outlined in its consultation is particularly pressing given that last July we saw the launch of the ‘Planning Pledge’. This pledge requires the planning application process, including appeals, to have been determined in a twelve month period. The coalition government has however already gone beyond this timescale just to lay down the regulations required for the reform of the planning fee system which demonstrates a clear inconsistency between the standards expected from local authorities and those practised in Whitehall.
Local authorities are currently confirming their budgets for 2012/13. I am therefore urging the Department for Communities and Local Government to lay down the regulations, allowing local authorities to set fees on a cost neutral basis, thereby enabling us to fully play our part in supporting economic growth in this country.
Cllr Robert Davis DL, Deputy Leader of Westminster City Council and Cabinet Member for the Built Environment.