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Land of the fee

A review of the level and applicability of planning fees might not mean higher charges but more assessment procedures It is not much more than 20 years ago that fees were first charged for making a planning application. Having started down this slippery slope, ministers were not slow to decide that their aim was for the full recovery of the costs involved in processing applications to be recovered from fees.

The current crisis in resourcing planning departments has brought the fees issue back near the top of the planning agenda, along with the related issue of reform of the planning system. Ministers rightly recognise that the increasingly complex and burdensome nature of the system is the principal reason for resource and skills problems, and the Green Paper proposals were rapidly translated into the new Planning Bill published in December.

Last May, Arup was appointed to lead a team of consultants carrying out a review of planning fees, to undertake research into their scope and levels. This work builds on two previous studies: Planning Fees 2001 and Resourcing of Local Planning Authorities 2002*. At a workshop to consider preliminary findings last year, the development sector was under-represented. Those present included the ACA, CBI, BPF, the House Builders Federation, ACP, NFU and yours truly.

Level playing field

It is clear that less than the full cost of processing applications is covered by fees, although it is also clear that the extent varies among authorities, which generally do not account separately for this part of their services.

The review focused on alternative means of raising the level of fees charged. Should:

the scale seek to recover the full cost;

the scope be widened to cover preapplication discussions, etc;

the regime be changed to allow local scales, for example; and lthe current regime be altered, removing the cap on maximum fees, redefining categories etc.

This narrow spin was resisted and other strategic possibilities discussed. These included:

Costs of listed building and conservation area applications should be incorporated into the scale consistent with the proposed reform, which will mean that all development proposals are integrated into a single application and form.

Pre-application discussions should be covered by the application fee.

Any charges for those discussions will be deducted from the fee when the application is made.

While full cost recovery was not objected to in principle (although it was admitted that there is a valid argument that planning was a service for the public good and should not be charged for), it should have two main consequences: sanctions and competition.

'Sanctions' should be the requirement that where the delivery of the service failed by missing its deadline, the fee should be refunded - as is the practice with Building Regulations applications.

'Competition' should mean that applicants, as with Building Regulations, should have a choice in whom they engaged to process their applications - other authorities, the Planning Inspectorate or registered consultancies. These agencies would deal with consultations and prepare reports to the planning committee or chief officer of the relevant planning authority for determination in accord with the democratic process, which applies to planning, as distinct from the Building Regulations.

Additional work imposed on applicants by requirements such as preparing environmental impact assessments should not lead to higher processing fees; and application fees should be ring-fenced to resource planning departments and not be swallowed up by local authorities.

Architects are appealing Arup's emerging findings include the general consensus that enforcement and appeals should not be funded by the application fee, and that appeals should not be charged for, but some parallels with continental practice were discussed.

One of these is the strange absence in the British system of any certification of compliance with the terms of a planning permission. If, as is commonly asserted, the credibility of the system is dependent on a credible enforcement process, then to require that developments are inspected and certified as compliant would be an opportunity to claim fees in the enforcement department.

Ironically, it would also strengthen the hand of the architect who is so often sidelined by that time, even in the small proportion of planning applications that are actually made by architects.

Of course, we should not find ourselves required by clients to certify compliance for those aspects where we are not qualified to do so (such as the noise levels emitted by air conditioning equipment, for example) nor to provide this service within our usual fees. In Spain, such certification is itself enforced by sanctions. Electricity cannot be connected to a new building without an architect's completion certificate.

The consultants also recorded concern that the effect of increasing fees would include deterring applications and increasing enforcement work, as well as raising private sector expectations which cannot necessarily be delivered. The development sector representatives were content that local authorities might be given power to reduce, or exempt from fees, specified types of development which their policies specifically sought to encourage, but that it would be unmanageable to cope with dozens of different local scales. As for disappointed expectations, sanctions and competition should be the necessary antidotes.

See www. planning. odpm. gov. uk/ consult/greenpap/planfees

and www.planning. odpm. gov. uk/planrezc

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555, email brian@bwcp. co. uk

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