Two-tier system looming

Suggestions that a fast-track service will be available to any developer who is prepared to pay higher application fees may undermine confidence in planning, warns Adam Sheppard.

Proposals: run risk of a two-tier system
Proposals: run risk of a two-tier system

A two-tier development control system could be in prospect under proposals put forward recently by the DCLG. A consultation document on planning fees moots the idea that councils could offer a premium planning service that would guarantee decisions within a specified timescale.

The consultation paper, issued alongside the planning white paper in May (Planning, 25 May, p2), suggests that applicants could be offered a guaranteed decision in less than the standard eight-week or 13-week timescales in return for an additional fee. It goes on to propose a pilot project and if the results of this prove favourable the approach could be rolled out across England.

At present, local authorities are able to offer the same service to all applicants, regardless of their social or financial standing. If the planning officer's position is to remain that of the impartial professional, then there should be no suggestion that the decision the council makes has been influenced by other factors.

Yet the consultation paper puts forward the idea of a payment of 20 per cent on top of the prescribed fee appropriate to the type and scale of development. This proposal could lead to public disquiet by sending a message that schemes will be approved if extra money is paid to have applications handled quickly. The impartiality of planning officers could then be challenged if there is any indication that an application has received favourable treatment because such additional monies were paid.

The scheme also raises practical difficulties. Applications could be refused when revisions that have secured approval cannot be pursued within the shorter timescale specified. This is unlikely to be seen as value for money. It is also impossible to anticipate whether a given application is capable of being dealt with quickly. In some cases, adhering to an eight-week timescale is challenging as a result of circumstances beyond the officer's control. An application may invite objections, forcing it to be taken to committee. It is unclear whether the premium fee would be refunded if the authority exceeded the agreed time period.

There is no doubt that charges in planning authorities are changing. Photocopying or site history searches already have flat-rate fees that apply equally to anyone using the services. Yet although the DCLG proposals are significant they have attracted little attention. Regardless of questions over fee scales, those who are required to pay them are on a level playing field. While in many business cases it is possible to buy a superior product for a higher price, this should not apply to a service that is operated in the public interest. For instance, there would be outrage if any of the emergency services offered a quicker response time for an additional charge.

The planning profession should likewise resist the idea that an enhanced service could be offered to the privileged. It should instead be acting in a fair and impartial way in the wider interests of good planning. Yet some local authorities are, arguably, already moving towards a two-tier system. Charges for pre-application advice are now relatively common, while certain authorities have introduced sliding scales of fees for major development proposals, chargeable by the hour depending on who is present at the meeting.

In such situations, the presence of specialists such as conservation officers or team managers results in extra charges whether or not these staff are central to effective discussions. The implication is that parties willing and able to pay extra receive a superior pre-application service. In turn, they are potentially more likely to secure planning permission because the issues have been dealt with more effectively at the pre-application stage. This example indicates a move towards a two-tier planning system serving the haves better than the have-nots. The formalisation of a premium service for applicants would be a further step in this direction.

Gary Halman (Planning, 29 June, p11) makes a light-hearted criticism about the concept of a "premium gold service" in planning. But his point is all too serious. As a profession, planning cannot let itself be structured in such a way that those with money can access a better quality of service. Charges should be even-handed. The system must be improved for everyone's benefit, not just those who can pay extra for it.

- Adam Sheppard is a lecturer in the school of planning and architecture at the University of the West of England. Planning Fees in England is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.


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