HALMAN ON: The right balance on developers' obligations

Last year planning tarrifs were given short shrift by the development industry and seemed to attract little support from planners, with the result that the proposals were kicked into touch. Now the government has once more got the goal of improved planning obligations in its sights.

This time the consultation paper stresses the optional nature of the concept, with a dual system operating - either chance your arm in negotiation or pay the predetermined amount.

The rules of the game are in desperate need of rewriting. The courts have largely done this already, but the present system is, in policy terms, discredited and effectively ignored by the main players. Devising an approach that delivers transparency while ensuring that it is reasonable in its demands is far from easy. The concept of a prescribed amount set out in local development frameworks that would enable any applicant to assess what planning obligation costs will need to be met is seductive. The ability to shortcut the negotiation process and avoid nasty shocks a few weeks before planning committee is attractive. Likewise, the painful process of getting action from the borough solicitor's department on a draft agreement left, often for months, at the bottom of an in-tray.

But before rejoicing in this proposed creative approach we should recognise a key factor - the reach of planning obligations is being extended. The consultation paper recognises that many developments attract no planning obligation requirements. Most applications do not give rise to the need for a planning agreement at all.

The proposals fail to define the scale of development that will be caught by the optional charge, but it is likely that most applications will be eligible. Unless there is a significant yield from this source, there will be no point in a local authority bearing the significant costs and the potential for delay in setting up the new arrangements through its plan-making process.

The reality is that the new system will be optional only for those who face a demand for a planning obligation under current arrangements. For all the others, which would be the majority, the "optional" charge cannot be seen as anything other than an additional burden. Opting for a negotiated figure in those circumstances gives new resonance to the "heads you win, tails I lose" school of decision-making. The government is to be applauded for grasping the nettle on planning obligations. Maybe there is a third way, taking the best from the old and some of what is offered in the new.

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