Westminster City Council has started charging a fee for all pre-application advice on large and complex projects, a move that has triggered claims it is 'hindering healthy planning debate'.
Westminster last week started charging £2,000 for advice on residential developments of 10 units, or half a hectare, and commercial schemes of 1,000m 2floor space, using the ODPM definition of 'major' projects.
It is also charging for complex projects - not covered by ODPM guidelines - that demand 'significant officer time to ensure compatibility'. This will include casinos, bars and clubs, or unusual designs such as Ian Ritchie Architects' Spire in O'Connell Street, Dublin.
The fee - developed in discussion with Westminster's Property Owners Association - has outraged George Pace, director of Westminster-based Dunthorne Parker Architects, who fears it will deter developers from seeking pre-application advice.
'My worry is that many developers will want to avoid the fee and will not engage in pre-application debate, ' Pace said. 'Therefore, more applications are likely to get turned down because developers failed to get initial consultation with the council on what types of design would be appropriate for the area.
'Good and healthy debate has to be encouraged, not hindered.
It seems that Westminster planners are trying to cut down their workload by introducing this fee, ' he added.
Westminster - the UK's largest planning authority - insists the charge is only intended to cover the cost of giving the advice and will not provide an additional revenue stream for the council.
Gordon Chard, planning and city development director, said:
'Westminster has to bear considerable costs because of the highly complex nature of many of the planning applications and the sheer number of large-scale plans it has to deal with. It is only right that our planning system acknowledges that.'
The news comes as ODPM embarks on a major review of the entire planning system including the issue of pre-application fees.
An ODPM spokesman said: 'We are in the midst of a planning reform agenda so it makes sense to review planning applications at this stage. Once the review has taken place, we will make our views known on planning charges.'