THE COST OF ADVICE
It's good to talk. But it certainly isn't cheap - as more and more architects are discovering when seeking pre-application advice from London planners.
Councils across the capital have suddenly decided to charge architects and developers who, sensibly, choose to have a chat with local authority planners before sending in a full application.
For example, this week Hammersmith and Fulham council confirmed that it plans to charge a fee for consultations on 'large schemes'. In reality, that actually means any retail, commercial or industrial development over 1,000m 2, or housing schemes over 10 units.
Barnet too has jumped on the gravy train by slapping a £500 tariff on advice.
Meanwhile, in Camden architects can now expect to pay £1,000 for a team to run an eye over their rough designs. The list goes on all the way back to Westminster - which started the trend.
So, does this advice tax actually represent genuine value for money? Camden, unsurprisingly, insists that it does. Specifically, the fee buys a meeting with key people relevant to a planning application, followed up with a letter spelling out what - if anything - has to be done to get a scheme passed.
In addition, says Camden council, architects get guidance on how planning policies may impact on a proposal. Advice is also given on which local groups or organisations may need to be consulted during the design process.
That's all right, then.
Well, not quite. Architects are not getting a premium deluxe service for their money - despite the high price tag. In fact, the paid-for advice is little different from when it was free.
It is not surprising, therefore, that small practices in particular are railing against fee charges. Foster Lomas, for example is adamant that the tariff does not represent value for money and, at the very least, should be means-tested.
The practice recently paid Barnet £500 in order to get pre-application advice on a sustainable housing scheme, only for planners to reject the project as a non-runner. After a total rethink, the project returned to Barnet's planners - who then demanded £100 an hour for time spent studying the revised designs.
'Councils like Barnet are putting a price tag on dialogue with architects who are trying to work with government policies, ' says Will Foster, partner at Foster Lomas.
'They argue that the fee creates a structure for consultation and that planners' time has to be accounted for. I've had better value for money through a few faxes with designers.' And BWCP boss Brian Waters is also frustrated by the charges. He believes the fee should buy a pledge that no additional objections to a scheme will be made once pre-application advice is given.
He argues: 'The tariff should buy reliable advice that only falls short of committing the council to any binding decision. It should also be a collective decision, not the view of just one planner.' Waters condemns pre-application fees as yet another step along the road to the wholesale privatisation of planning departments. But, if that's the case, should architects now be given the right to choose the authority or agency that processes their application?