Speeding section 106 deals will not be easy, by Richard Garlick

Few topics in planning are as contentious as planning obligations. Local authorities need them to provide community benefits to mitigate the impact of development.

But applicants fear that they will be asked to pay for more than is really required to support their schemes, and question if the money will be spent as it is supposed to be. With suspicion prevalent on both sides, it is not surprising that concluding section 106 planning obligation agreements can be a long-winded and energy-sapping process.

So it’s not unreasonable for the government to announce that it will examine the system to see where improvements could be made. In his National Infrastructure Plan, the chancellor announced that the government would produce revised guidance on section 106 negotiations, consult on a faster process for reaching agreement, including considering how timescales for agreement could be introduced, and improve transparency.

However, accelerating the process will not be easy. Many previous governments have hoped that revised guidance would do so. But agreeing a financial settlement between two parties who do not necessarily share an interest is never straightforward. Hence, despite former ministers’ best efforts, negotiating obligat-ions still remains a significant hurdle in the development process.

That said, experts (see News Analysis, p4) do believe that there are some avenues for reform worth exploring. Defining a timetable for negotiation between the two parties is widely seen as good practice. But such timetables have to be flexible enough to accommodate the delays that can reasonably crop up in complex projects. Also, it is questionable whether applicants and authorities should be tied to a national standard. But requiring parties to at least agree a schedule would make sense.

Of course, the seriousness with which such deadlines are treated will depend on the sanctions attached to missing them. Some are sceptical about whether the introduction of penalties is viable. But others feel that sanctions for lateness could be set, such as forcing an applicant back to committee or requiring a council to forfeit part of its Planning Performance Agreement fee. This is another area worth examination by civil servants.

The other key factor is local authority resources. For effective negotiations to proceed in a timely manner, there is a need for all parties to be properly funded. With town halls continuing to struggle for money, there are times when negotiations are delayed by a lack of available staff or expert advice. Exploring how planning authorities could be helped with the necessary funding, perhaps by drawing up protocols under which an applicant could fund a council’s advisers – without prejudicing the negotiation – could be profitable.

Planning obligations have an essential part to play in making development acceptable to local communities. Reforms that smooth the process for agreeing them are a worthwhile objective, as long as they don’t have the end result of simply making meaningful developer contributions harder to collect.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning // richard.garlick@haymarket.com

This is the last edition of the magazine for 2014. Our first 2015 issue will be 5 January.

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