Fees set for the high jump
Application fees have not changed for several years and the government's recent proposal is to raise fees at the beginning of April to provide an additional £30 million, so that the cost of running development control will be more realistically covered and more resources can be made available to planning authorities (though the delivery grant is to be run down).
For the first time, the fee increases will be accompanied by a performance and quality measure. Concern is heightened by the results of a second consultation, which claims that respondents want even bigger increases, and thus the government proposes an average increase of 25 per cent, but a huge leap of 450 per cent for major applications. This will raise the maximum of £11,000 to £50,000.
The Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) concedes that fees should be increased, but subject to the imposition of sanctions for failed performance (for example, by deemed approvals or return of fees if decisions are not timely) and the introduction of competition, which is implied by the government's aim of making development control financially self-sufficient. In this scenario, applications could be assessed by either an independent agency or a different local authority and the resulting report presented to committee or delegated power in the area of the application. Such an approach works for Building Regulations, and has greatly enhanced the quality of service provided. The same is urgently needed in planning.
The planning delivery grant fails in that it provides additional financial resources to the authorities that are doing well rather than to those which need help because they are doing badly. This can become a vicious circle, but sanctions as a direct stimulus, and competition as an immediate way of improving the process, would surely break the circle. The ACA considers that realistic application fees will emphasise to clients the direct link between the value of their proposals and the quality - not only of the application itself but also of the way it is processed by the planning authority.
Higher planning fees should help persuade clients to put proper resources into their applications.
However, high fees may encourage unscrupulous authorities to increase refusal levels in order to obtain extra income - particularly if the 'free go' is removed. At present the withdrawals statistics are not included and the planning delivery grant returns do not take account of negotiations where both parties have agreed an extension of time. Performance measures need to reflect these realities and withdrawals should be recorded as if they were refusals. If the 'free go' is removed, the level of appeals will escalate dramatically, the ACA points out. Clients should be warned of the impending application fee increases (probably from 1 April).
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Visit www.bwcp. co. uk