Next year could see an unprecedented seizure of powers from councils, by Jamie Carpenter

A regime that penalises councils for taking too long to decide planning applications has so far seen sanctions imposed on only a handful of authorities.

But the expansion of the so-called "special measures" policy to assess performance on nonmajor applications as well as major schemes means that next year could see penalties imposed much more widely.

When designations are made in the first quarter of 2017, a far greater number of authorities could be categorised as poor performing and thousands more applicants could be handed the opportunity to bypass town halls and send their applications direct to the Planning Inspectorate, an investigation by Planning suggests (see News Analysis).

With councils also given an "early 2017" deadline for preparing local plans, there is the prospect that next year could see an unprecedented seizure of planning powers from town halls. Ministers credit the special measures regime, introduced in 2013, with delivering "great success in delivering improved performance" on major applications. They point to figures showing that 83 per cent of major applications were decided on time in the most recent quarter, up from 57 per cent in the third quarter of 2012.

Observers believe the expansion of the regime to assess performance on non-major applications could have far-reaching ramifications for local authority planning teams. They say the challenge is greater to turn around performance on smaller applications as there are more of them, involving more team members. And the extension of time agreements and planning performance agreements that have helped authorities evade designation under the existing major application regime are less appropriate for smaller schemes, they say.

As part of the changes to the special measures regime, a new "exceptional circumstances" test will be used to determine whether sanctions should be imposed on authorities that have failed to reach the revised thresholds. Until now, authorities that had decided a small fixed number of applications or fewer have not been eligible for designation. The removal of this safeguard in favour of the new test might leave some authorities with a small caseload nervous that they may find themselves in line for sanctions.

But the new exceptional circumstances arrangements, which appear to give ministers more discretion over whether or not to impose sanctions, may give other local authorities in the frame for designation hope that they may escape penalties. In particular, councils which fall beneath the threshold, but can clearly demonstrate they have improved their performance over the two-year period for assessment, will be hoping that, in their cases, the new test will allow the secretary of state to waive sanctions. In such instances, the loss of planning powers would seem counterproductive.

The next weekly online and app editions of Planning appear on 16 December, and the next print edition on 13 January. We wish all our readers a happy Christmas.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning //

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