As promised in documents associated with the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB), the Government has published a consultation focused on increasing fees for planning applications in England. Such is the urgent need to start building capacity in local planning authorities (LPAs) this is a cost increase that will be welcomed by many. The consultation covers three topics:
- Increasing planning fees
- Building capacity and capability in the planning system
- Introducing a more robust performance regime
The standout headline from the consultation is the proposed 35% increase in planning application fees for major applications and 25% increase for all other applications which include prior approval applications, minor and householder applications. Also proposed is the introduction of indexation which would allow planning application fees to rise with inflation. The justification behind this is to provide local planning authorities (LPAs) with financial stability, which the current system of ad hoc increases does not provide. A table of proposed fees is provided in the consultation.
Under the plans, fees for retrospective applications would double. It is proposed that householders would not have to pay double the fee for retrospective applications where the application relates to householder development, but would still be expected to pay the standard planning application fee. The consultation also considers a new fee structure for the variation of planning permissions, reflecting proposals in the LURB which offer a new route to vary an existing permission such as Section 73B, which is discussed in greater detail here
. LPA’s will retain the flexibility to set their own fees for pre-application advice, planning performance agreements and other bespoke services. However, the consultation notes that LPAs should be more transparent in the discretionary fees that they charge and the service that applicants can expect in return and is seeking feedback from applicants on these services.
Views are being sought on whether the additional income gained from the proposed fee increase should be ringfenced for use within the local authority planning department rather than being available to support other council services. The consultation observes that past fee increases have required a written commitment from all local planning authorities in advance of implementation to guarantee that funding will be used to improve planning services, inferring that a decision on this lies in the hands of every local planning authority.
One of the proposals the development industry may find concerning is partial or full removal of the ‘free go’ for repeat applications. Currently, where applicants reapply within 12 months of submitting an application, subject to certain conditions, they can do so without paying a fee. The proposals are designed to ‘encourage applicants to engage in pre-application discussions and support the submission of high-quality applications first time round’. This fails to acknowledge the political nature of planning that can lead to officer recommendations being overturned and the desire of applicants to resubmit and re-engage locally rather than proceeding to appeal. The Planning Inspectorate recently encouraged
such re-engagement, saying “We closed over 1800 appeal cases in November. Although this is higher than most months, we are still generally receiving more appeals than we can currently decide. So please focus on resolving issues locally to reduce the number of appeals being submitted and help us improve”.
It is also proposed that where the statutory determination period is 8 weeks, the Planning Guarantee should shortened to 16 weeks, but where the statutory determination period is 13 weeks (or 16 weeks for Environmental Impact Assessment developments) the Planning Guarantee should be retained at 26 weeks.
Subject to the outcome of the consultation and Parliamentary approval, the new fees will be introduced in summer 2023. Fee levels will be reviewed no later than three years following implementation.
The consultation acknowledges that "Money is not enough" and reconfirms "The government is only prepared to introduce fee increases if planning performance also improves". Accordingly, the Government proposes to amend the existing metrics that measure performance of local planning authorities for speed of decision-making. The planning performance framework would be broadened to include a wider range of metrics. These include the average speed of decision making, quality of decision making, extension of time, size of backlog, average timescales associated with planning enforcement and percentage of decisions delegated to planning committee and number of committee decisions to refuse against officer recommendation that are subsequently allowed at appeal.
Furthermore, the consultation considers including a qualitative measure as part of a new planning performance framework in the form of a ‘customer experience’ metric. A ‘customer experience’ measure could be based on a standardised customer satisfaction survey which focuses on the overall quality and timeliness of pre-application services and the decision-making service. A concern here might be that as with all types of review, only the least satisfied complete the survey. One might argue that requiring regular two way feedback sessions between regular users of an LPA’s service, including architects, surveyors, developers and planning consultants, perhaps with a short survey at the end, would provide a more helpful analysis of performance. This could be the sole reflection of LPA performance or be used to moderate the accuracy (and therefore usefulness) of reviewers with a one off perspective of the system and decision that hasn’t gone their way. Two way feedback might also create a more collaborative approach to the decision making experience and improve LPA recruitment and retention.
Concerns expressed, by the public sector in particular, regarding recruitment and retention are acknowledged and the consultation seeks views on how to build capacity. Related to this, the Government “[…] want the planning profession to become more representative of the communities it is seeking to enhance”, referring to an RTPI report which “estimated only 3-4% of planners were from ethnic minority backgrounds (compared to 12% in society)” and that 40 per cent of planners are female.
The consultation seeks to emphasise the role of, and value added, by planners, in a continued move away from past Government rhetoric of criticism of the planning system. But there a huge challenges ahead in terms of training and retaining skilled professionals, notwithstanding the very welcome “money is not enough” approach. Perhaps more metrics should follow, rather than lead?
This consultation runs for 8 weeks from 28 February 2023 to 25 April 2023.
Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Technical consultation: Stronger performance of local planning authorities supported through an increase in planning fees
UK Parliament - Written Statement - Michael Gove