DCLG: Poor performers need 'radical change'

Poor performing planning authorities placed in 'special measures' would be expected to take 'maximum advantage' of peer support and explore options for shared services to be handed back full control of their planning powers, a government consultation has revealed.

The government last week published the criteria for its controversial proposal, which would give developers the option to submit major applications directly to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) where councils have a poor track record in performance.

The measure is being taken forward in clause one of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, currently before Parliament.

The consultation paper confirms the thresholds for poor performance as being where a council has determined 30 per cent or fewer major applications within 13 weeks or where more than 20 per cent of major decisions have been overturned at appeal.

The government anticipates that the first designations would be made in October 2013, based on performance data for the previous two financial years (2011-2013).

Designated councils would remain so for at least a year. But the government has said those authorities would be subject to review during that time, so that they have "every opportunity" for the designation to be lifted at the end of the year.

The DCLG said that it expects designated authorities to take maximum advantage of opportunities for peer support through the Planning Advisory Service and explore options for "radical change" such as shared services.

Planning minister Nick Boles told the committee scrutinising the bill last week that if a poor performing authority was a small district, "it could co-operate or even merge its planning department with its neighbouring department".

Any assessment of improvement would be based on a range of considerations, including the authority's performance in dealing with its remaining applications, administrative tasks associated with any plans submitted to PINS and a review of the steps a council has taken to deal efficiently with major schemes, the consultation paper says.

Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers Society, described the "special measures" proposal as "a sledgehammer to crack a nut".

He suggested that it would be more effective and save a lot of argument and Parliamentary time to give peer support to poor performing authorities in the first instance.

"All this presupposes that the planning system is failing rather than decision making. It may not be the system or professional officers, so one of the key things needed is more member training," he said.

He added that exploring shared services was not a panacea for poor performance and proper resourcing was much more important than time limits and appeal rates in getting improvements.

Simon Ricketts, head of planning at law firm SJ Berwin, said the criteria are likely to push local authorities into manipulating their performance statistics. He said councils will seek to use more planning performance agreements (PPA) and agreed time extensions to deal with complex applications because they are excluded from the data.

"The statistics may end up more telling of which are the smarter local authorities in navigating the system rather than performance," he said.

As well as having to carry out administrative tasks associated with any application submitted to PINS, designated councils will also be expected to deal with section 106 planning gain agreements for such schemes, according to the consultation paper.

But Ricketts warned that this would lead to a major disconnect between the decision-making on applications and section 106 negotiations. He said this was curious given that the slow turnaround of section 106 agreements is often the main reason for slow decision-making in the first place.

The Royal Town Planning Institute said it is concerned about the use of metrics solely to measure performance because they do not tell the whole story about why complex major schemes are delayed.

The consultation document is available via PlanningResource.co.uk/go/referencesection

Planning Performance

Five new details from the consultation on planning performance:

1. Designations to last one year - Designations of poor performing planning authorities would be made once a year and would last for at least a year, the document says

2. Thresholds to be increased - The threshold for the speed of decisions would be raised after the first year to ensure that there is "a strong but achievable incentive for further improvement"

3. Exemptions proposed for agreements - Post-application agreements to extend the timescale for determination could count as a form of planning performance agreement and thus be exempt from performance data

4. Penalties for missing data proposed - Any authority with a whole year of planning decisions data missing would automatically be designated as very poor performing

5. Application fee refunds mooted - Secondary legislation would be amended to require a refund of the planning application fee if no decision has been made on a scheme within 26 weeks. It would apply to authorities and the Planning Inspectorate

Source: DCLG.

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