Councillors voted to adopt Future Shape, a style of delivery where users pay extra for particular functions such as planning, care and waste disposal. The initiative would be targeted at residential applications rather than large-scale developments, where transparency and consultation would be more important than speed.
A council spokesman denied that it would be unfair to create a two-tier system, whereby those who could afford to will be able to speed up their applications. "It is perfectly reasonable for residents to be able to fast-track their proposals, as you can for a passport application," he added. "For those who do not pay, their applications will be processed within the statutory timeframe."
But Planning Officers Society spokesman John Silvester disagreed. "In the current system all applications are treated fairly. In these proposals there is a danger that those who pay will get preferential treatment over those who do not," he said.
A single customer service organisation would be at the heart of the plans, which the council estimates will save up to £15.6 million a year over seven years by improving efficiency. It would also aim to improve engagement with council users.
"Those residents who come into contact with the council infrequently on issues such as parking permits or planning need to find our services easier to use," argued borough council leader Mike Freer.
The measures have been adopted in response to council estimates that it will need to find between £10 and £20 million a year over the next decade to maintain existing service levels in light of impending public service cuts and increased demand.
"If we are to protect our key front-line services, we need to drive efficiency through our organisation and examine how we pay for services," maintained Freer. The borough will now consult with stakeholders to work out how much they would be prepared to pay for particular additional services and what they consider to be core services.
A survey conducted by Planning earlier this year (Planning, 6 February, p17) found that Barnet already charges £2,935 for pre-application advice on residential schemes of between 40 and 300 homes and for commercial schemes of 6,000m2.