Cllr Robert Davis DL, Deputy Leader of Westminster City Council and Cabinet Member for the Built Environment, says allowing councils to recover the full costs of planning applications would be localist, would mean a better quicker service and would allow lower Council Tax bills
It is 12 months to the day since the Department for Communities and Local Government opened a consultation with proposals for reforming the planning application fee system.
The proposed reform sought to give local authorities greater opportunity to recover the costs of providing this statutory service – and for which the regulations have yet to be laid down – is critical to the future of many planning departments in local authorities.
Westminster City Council currently handles more than 11,000 planning applications every year, the most of any local authority in the country. Nearly 50% of these applications are for listed building consents, conservation area consents and tree applications – none of which are chargeable to the service user.
When joined with the non-rechargeable requirement for plan making, a requirement which is essential for the management of an historic city or area and to tie into the forthcoming neighbourhood plans, the restrictions result in the City Council and the local taxpayer having to subsidise the service by more than £5m every year.
Many planning departments are proud of their role in supporting, nurturing and encouraging development. Again this is vital to the delivery of the government’s growth agenda. In the case of Westminster, close working between the department, applicants and landowners sees more than 90% of the applications receive consent every year within established and visible timescales.
The certainty this approach provides is also recognised by developers, a point emphasised by Westminster having received the support of many major developers and landowners who are prepared to pay an additional fee for a quicker decision and back the introduction of a fairer fee charging system.
However, the certainty can only continue with a sufficiently staffed and resourced planning department.
It is worth noting that, for example, most listed building alterations cost many thousands of pounds to carry out. Not only would a small charge for an application – which is likely to be as low as a couple of hundred pounds – be insignificant for the applicant, it would remove the burden of the cost being met by local taxpayers for what is a statutory duty.
Listed building, conservation area and tree application also require specialist staff. With local authorities being required to continue to make significant savings over the coming months, it is important to ensure this specialism is retained if we are to avoid compromising on our heritage.
Amending the fee charging proposals would be entirely in keeping with the government’s commitment to free local authorities of regulation and devolve power to the local level. This must not be taken by irresponsible local authorities as a means to raise money, but to charge appropriately to cover their costs for the delivery of an efficient planning service based upon the principle that the service user should be asked to pay for the service they receive.
The anniversary of the launch of the consultation is particularly important given in July we saw the launch of the ‘Planning Pledge’. This pledge requires the planning application process, including appeals, to have been determined in a twelve month period; and under the circumstances it would not be unreasonable to expect the same timescale to be applied for the laying down of regulatory reform for planning fees.
Local authorities are shortly due to start their budget setting process for 2012/13. I am therefore writing, with a number of authorities who handle the most listed building applications, to urge the Department for Communities and Local Government to lay down the regulations with a start date of April 2012 so as to provide authorities with the certainty they too require when planning for the future.