Developers will pay for quality council advice to avoid expensive problems, by Richard Garlick

Our survey of the pre-application advice fees charged by English unitary authorities reveals a huge variety in the range of charges levied.

Comparison between different authorities’ tariffs isn’t easy, as there is no standard approach to setting the rates. Not only do councils differ in the level of their fees, they also vary widely in terms of how they group different scales of development into payment bands. For example, one authority might have a single fee rate for 10-99 homes, while another will have one rate for a 10-49 home project, and another for a 50-99 dwelling scheme.

So, for the purposes of comparison, we examined the minimum charge that each authority would impose for a certain development scenario, such as five homes, 250 homes or a 3,000 square metre office.

It’s important to note that the fees we recorded are minimum charges, as many councils offer a variety of pre-application advice services. Some differences between council fee levels will be explained by the fact that Council A offers a bare bones service for a low minimum fee, whereas Council B provides a more extensive service as a minimum, but requires a higher fee. So two authorities who appear to demand widely divergent minimum fees may actually make quite similar charges to provide the same service.

That is one caveat to the findings. The other is that the authorities’ varying approaches to payment bands will sometimes mean that councils who set dramatically different fees at particular development size points will not be so far apart when the full range of development is examined.

For example, if Council X has a single payment band for 50-99 homes, and another for 100-199 homes, it would not be that surprising if its fee for 100 homes was higher than its neighbouring authority that has one band for 50-149 homes and another for 150-299 dwellings.

But these factors do not explain away the huge variety of different charges that we came across. At one end of the scale, Central Bedfordshire Council charges more than £26,000 plus VAT for pre-application advice on a 250 home scheme. At the other, eleven authorities currently make no charge at all for pre-application advice.

Average minimum prices for different development scenarios are usually two to three times as high in London as they are anywhere else. Some of this may be accounted for by different levels of service, but some must surely reflect that the capital’s boroughs believe their applicants are willing and able to pay.

As some authorities have clearly discovered, developers are prepared to pay for good quality advice that will help them avoid expensive problems later on. Pre-application advice may be becoming expensive in some places, but if the alternative is the cost of having to resubmit a planning application, or mount an appeal, then it may still appear comparatively good value.

The survey can be read in full here. 

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //

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