Should more credence be given to the planning officer's delegated authority in order to speed up the decision process?
Years of necessary but anodyne ministerial statements urging planning authorities to meet the target for making planning decisions - 80 per cent in eight weeks - has come to a head. Planning minister Lord Falconer has ordered England's three worst authorities to get their act together.
'Failure to reach the standard could result in intervention, ' he warns.
He is referring to Oxford City Council, which processed only 20 per cent of applications within eight weeks in the quarter to June, Lambeth council (41 per cent) and Restormel (45 per cent). These are three of the 15 councils 'named and shamed' earlier this year when they were all warned that if they failed to achieve 65 per cent during 2001-02 they would face action. Eleven of these met this standard in the past quarter.
So naming and shaming seems to work, but overall the national performance is stuck at around 65 per cent - councils in the North East being the fastest and in London the slowest. 'It is incredible how performance differs across the country, ' the planning minister says.
The loud protests from councils when the government first published performance figures in the early 1990s have not entirely subsided.
Planners remain quick to claim that a speedy decision is not necessarily a good one. Experience generally suggests that the correlation is the other way - that efficient authorities manage to process applications well and quickly. Indeed, one of the criteria for judging a good decision has to be the speed with which it is taken.
However, there are legitimate arguments against making quick decisions. Some architects find that a case is not given the time they would like for negotiation and they end up with a refusal. The Corporation of London has long had a policy of negotiation. In the quarter up to March 2001 it granted permission to every application, having processed 67 per cent in eight weeks. But while the City deals with unusual cases, many other councils, under the hammer to meet the target, resort to the easy way out - granting quick refusals.
Ticked off Often, two ticks in the eight-week box means an applicant has reapplied following a negotiation and gets a quick permission! But in reality it will have taken 14 weeks or more and caused extra work all round. Objectors also feel, sometimes, that they are not given a fair hearing owing to the rushing through of a case. As the appeals system continues to accelerate, so this puts a counter-pressure on authorities and it shows up in their high failure rate on appeal. If anything, political members like this even less than reprimands about their poor processing performance.
Lord Falconer's threat raises the question of what 'intervention' might involve. A Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions spokesman has said that it could mean taking advice from a consultancy, an inquiry into the department, or the transfer of powers to another authority 'but it would have to be an extreme case'.
Increase delegated power What are the remedies? The upcoming Green Paper on the reform of the planning system should lead to finer targeting between householder and commercial applications, some means of prioritising the latter under pressure from the CBI and, one hopes, a significant reduction in the procedures we presently have to endure.
There is also scope for innovation.
A six-month study has just been commissioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute into the 'doorstep delivery' service pioneered by the London Borough of Sutton. Since 1995, Sutton has employed consultants to visit householder applicants to discuss and revise proposals, meeting objectors and sorting things out on the spot. Feedback on this experience from other architects would be interesting.
The 'one-stop-shop' could come into its own as an approach. The increasing dominance of delegated decisions is highly desirable and makes for a reputable development control system and adds relevance to an up-to-date development plan.
Applicants for simple, small proposals - only 15 or 20 per cent of applications are made by architects, so we are very often talking about shopkeepers, householders and their builders - should be able to make an appointment to see an area officer. They could then put their application before them, have it checked and, if in order, have it determined on the spot, subject only to there being no valid objections in the 21-day period following its advertising.
Applicants should be encouraged to go away and take advice or think again where they would otherwise be refused. Where officers from other departments are needed, this can be identified at the first meeting (or on some sort of written submission) and then the one-stop meeting set up.
It will not always speed things up, but the bulk of smaller cases will be cleared without clogging the system.
Development control can be turned into more of a proactive customer service rather than being stuck with its negative, bureaucratic and interventionist reputation.
Skilled planning officers could then be released to focus on facilitating projects involving inward investment and environmental improvements. This would really add quality to the process.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555, e-mail brian@bwcp. co. uk