Major housebuilder cool on 'disjointed' planning outsourcing idea

Government plans to open up the processing of planning applications to competition by giving applicants the option to have them processed by an alternative provider are 'far too disjointed', the planning boss of a major housebuilder has told a Conservative Party conference fringe session.

New homes: uncertainty surrounds future of planning application competition plan (picture: Jon Jordan)
New homes: uncertainty surrounds future of planning application competition plan (picture: Jon Jordan)

Andrew Taylor, head of planning and a director at Countryside Properties, told a fringe session that the plan, included in last year’s Housing and Planning Act, "seems far too disjointed". "You’ll end up with different people saying different things," he said.

Powers contained in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 would allow applications to be processed by "alternative providers" other than local authority planning departments. But uncertainty surrounds a February 2016 consultation proposal to pilot the scheme. A consultation response issued alongside the housing white paper said that the government is "reflecting" on how to move forward with the pilot projects.

Under the government’s plans, the local planning authority would remain responsible for determining any applications processed in this way.

Taylor told the fringe session: "My fear, as a developer, is that if the local authority is dealing with the local plan and the policy upfront, and there is an interaction at that level … yes, there may well be the opportunity to then put your planning application to someone else, but it’s still coming back into the local authority for determination."

He added: "If we are working on an allocation for a large-scale development with a local authority and we are taking it all the way through that process, we have actually invested a huge amount of money and time up front working with the officers and local authority members. Disconnecting it I’m not sure adds to that process."

Taylor concluded: "It seems far too disjointed. You’ll end up with different people saying different things."

Taylor was speaking at a fringe session organised by think-tank Planning Futures, at which the body outlined the findings of a soon-to-be-published report into local authority planning department resources.

According to the report’s findings, on average, planning departments saw a reduction in staff numbers of 14.6 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

The findings come as local planning authorities wait for the government to introduce regulations to allow them to increase fees by 20 per cent - a rise that had originally been promised for July. The government’s consultation on housing need, published last month, said that regulations would be brought forward "at the earliest opportunity".

Former planning minister Bob Neill told the fringe session that, during the early years of the coalition government, Whitehall resistance to the idea of allowing authorities powers to set planning fees locally centred around fears that additional income might not be used to resource planning departments.

He said: "There was resistance from the industry, and there was a fear at that time over whether or not it actually would be used to resource planning departments, or whether it would be a backdoor means of revenue-raising that would just go in the general pot.

"I’m open-minded about it myself. There’s always finding a balance between what’s reasonable and what isn’t going to choke off development."

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