Government must make clear when extra fee income will be forthcoming, by Richard Garlick

When the property industry tells ministers that they need to allow planning authorities to increase application fees, then you know that the lack of resources in council planning departments really has become acute.

That was clearly the view of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), after the British Property Federation had joined the clamour for a rate rise. In February's housing white paper, the government announced that, from this month, councils would be able to increase fees by 20 per cent if they committed to invest the additional income in their planning department. What's more, ministers said they would consider a further 20 per cent rise for authorities "who are delivering the homes their communities need".

The announcement received a cautious welcome from planning authorities. Caveats were expressed, including fears that the extra money would be eaten up by the need to meet new, centrally-imposed requirements, such as the duty to draw up brownfield land registers. But, generally speaking, the move was seen as a long overdue step in the right direction.

Our exclusive research, conducted with the Planning Officers Society and published in this issue, examining the potential impact of the rate rise, confirms that most foresee it as valuable, if not life-changing. Council planning departments expect it to bring an average annual income boost of £155,000, allowing them to employ two to three additional staff this year, and the same number next year.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. For the increase to be implemented, the fee regulations have to be amended. This requires parliamentary time, which is in short supply. With Parliament soon to rise, and documents yet to be laid, commentators are saying the increase won't be implemented before the autumn. Once so clear about the timetable, the DCLG will now say only that more details of the fee increase will be published "in due course".

This puts planning authorities that have budgeted on the basis of the government's timetable in an unfair position. Some councils will have been cautious, not committing to extra spending until they can see the ink has dried on the revised fee regulations. But those who have gone ahead with recruitment plans or other expenditure on the basis that their revenues would begin to rise this month now face difficulties.

Everyone understands that the DCLG was not to know, when it announced its schedule, that there would be a snap election. And the difficulty of finding parliamentary time at the moment is widely accepted. But the government owes it to cash-strapped planning departments to provide some clarity about when this extra money will be forthcoming, and to provide it as soon as possible.

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