A clause in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, published last month, would allow planning applications to be made directly to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) if councils have a poor track record in the speed of decisions or the proportion of applications overturned on appeal.
The bill specifies that communities secretary Eric Pickles must first publish criteria on how councils will be designated as poorly performing and what type of development could be sent to PINS.
In a background note on the bill, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the provision would apply to major applications.
Earlier this month, planning minister Nick Boles told MPs that councils would be placed in "special measures" for up to a year and would still carry out administrative parts of the application process, such as consultations, but PINS would make the decision and receive the fee.
Planning Officers Society president Malcolm Sharp said that if authorities have to work on applications but are not getting a share of the fee it is setting them up to fail even more. He said: "Councils need support. I'm far from convinced that this is an effective sanction."
The Local Government Association (LGA) said the proposal could result in a vicious circle as resources are diverted from improving local decision-making and "channelled into second-guessing it from Bristol", where PINS is based.
The LGA is seeking assurances from the government that it will allow councils to tackle performance issues through sector-led support ahead of any intervention.
Calculations on an "unofficial" blog of the Planning Advisory Service team suggest that a designated council could end up with a 20 per cent hike in the cost of running its planning service due to the loss of fee income if all major applications were diverted to PINS.
Concerns have also been raised over whether PINS will be able to cope with the increase in workload as well as new responsibilities to renegotiate section 106 planning gain agreements deemed to be unviable, also contained in the bill.
Michael Gallimore, partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, said: "There needs to be a clear timetable on processing decisions because the worst thing would be for developers to still be in a time delay, just with a different authority."
A PINS spokesman said it was working with the DCLG to review its resource and staffing requirements.
Gallimore questioned how many developers would take up the option to go to PINS, under which they would not have the right to appeal. He said that with councils there is a clear negotiation process to assess whether a scheme is acceptable.
A DCLG spokesman said it is considering the implementation of the measure and intends to consult on its proposals shortly. New DCLG statistics have revealed the lowest-scoring councils for determining major schemes in 13 weeks.
Ten lowest-scoring English authorities for determining major
applications within 13 weeks between April and June (minimum five major
Ten lowest-scoring English authorities for processing minor applications
within eight weeks between April and June
West Lindsey 31%
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