6th December 2023
The planning system is fixed – or is it?
Alder King planning partner Gary Morris gives his view on what today’s increase in planning fees means for the sector.
So, today’s the day the planning system will be fixed! Planning fees have increased by up to 35% for majors, 25% for all other types of application. The ‘free go’ is a ‘free gone’. Fees are up, the waiting is over, right?
Anyone who has interacted with the planning system over the past few years will acknowledge that there is a ‘capacity’ issue and that most likely stems from a financial resource issue.
Planning is unlike other council services. It doesn’t require an immediate response. It’s not about a classroom of children with no teacher. It’s not about someone living on the streets. It’s not about potholes causing havoc with unsuspecting car suspensions (although there are plenty of those!). Indeed, it’s not like the myriad of other council services that need to be funded to avoid genuine immediate hardship or damage to health.
Depriving planning services of funding causes delays, and in many cases serious delays – delays on investment that creates jobs that help generate rates that help pay for pothole repairs, perhaps?
But at the end of the day, it’s still just a delay, a frustration, a cost – but not a life-critical cost.
So perhaps it’s understandable that the planning begging bowl is not, and should not, be at the front of the queue when annual budgets are decided.
So, as a headline, the increase in planning fees should be seen as good news.
It is well known that planning fees don’t cover the cost of dealing with planning applications, so a significant increase in the fees charged should help bridge the gap, right?
Well, that might be the case if the Government had ring-fenced the revenue from the planning application fee increase for delivering improvements in planning services. Doing so would have made paying up to 35% more for major application fees a somewhat easier pill for the development world to swallow.
Even if the funds had been ring-fenced for planning services, it would have taken quite some time for the benefits to be felt. There isn’t an endless supply of good quality planners waiting to take up newly created positions in local authority planning teams – but the development world would, I’m sure, have afforded them a bit of patience in this regard, knowing that the horizon was glowing.
However, in a world where each new week tells us of another local Council ‘going bust’, I’m sure that Planning Services will be a fair way down the list when it comes to budget increases, regardless of revenue generation.
Rather than ring-fencing the extra fees for planning services, the Government has decided to give the development world a bigger stick to tickle the planning departments with – The Planning Guarantee, a little-used tool that theoretically allows applicants to ask for the application fee back if they’re still waiting for a decision.
The period beyond which a planning department is deemed to have ‘under-performed’ is being reduced for non-major applications from 26 weeks to 16 weeks.
But is this genuinely a tool that many planning professionals will be prepared to use? It is the ultimate end to a beautiful relationship.
I have only tried to use it once after nearly two years of getting no response from an authority (which shall remain unnamed) in relation to a scheme that my client had long since abandoned. Six months later I’m still waiting for a response from said authority on whether they under-performed.
So, will the planning system be fixed today? There will be an expectation that it will be the beginning of a fix, if nothing else, but I fear the reality might fall short of this, and not through the fault of the many hard-working local authority planners.
The planning system is becoming ever-more complicated to navigate and we’ll be lucky if the increased funding even covers the additional resources that will be needed for LPAs to deal with the BNG burden they have to face in April 2024. Some might say that we’ll be lucky to achieve Planning Neutrality, but that’s no reason to stop trying.
There can be no question that planning needed increased funding, but perhaps it also needs a sharper focus. With better tools, perhaps in the form of more progressive PD rights and National Development Management Policies, local planning authorities will be able to focus their resources on the things that matter the most. Funding alone won’t fix the problem, even if it finds its way to planning departments. Increasing fees is only the beginning.