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It’s high time the UK planning system was opened up to competition

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Approved agents could assess the impacts of proposals and write a report with a recommendation – just as planning officers do now, writes the Association of Consultant Architects’ Andrew Rogers

Older readers will recall the bad old days before building control was opened up to private competition. Long delays and the inefficiency of local authority inspectors meant that construction was often bogged down by the need to deal with a sclerotic Building Regulations Department. The magic solution was amendment of legislation to allow Approved Inspectors, who were not necessarily part of the local authority, to handle and discharge construction applications. This introduced an element of competition and made local authorities improve, while giving applicants the option of having their schemes dealt with by whichever agency they considered to be the most effective.

The Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) has long argued that a similar system could be applied to planning. In its November 2008 Manifesto, the ACA proposed that development applications could be assessed for validity and compliance with local policy by ‘approved agents’ who, as with building control, could be either local authority officers or suitably qualified independent professionals. This proposal, built on Recommendation 13 of the Killian Pretty Review of the planning application system, which suggested an ‘accredited agent’ scheme for householder and minor developments, would bring competition into the planning system.

It is important to note that in such a system the actual decision would remain with the local authority. Approved agents could assess the impacts of proposals and write a report with a recommendation – just as planning officers (and, indeed, appeal inspectors) do now – but the rejection or approval of the application would be made by a delegated officer of the local authority or, in controversial cases, by the planning committee or Secretary of State. 

Variable application fees (long argued-for by the Planning Officers’ Society and others) could be introduced. The government’s Chief Planning Officer is on record as stating that minsters would not allow this because, currently, planning is effectively a monopoly, but competition would overcome this objection. The resourcing of planning departments could improve by raising application fees and by the part-removal of case-loads. For the first time a performance and quality measure would accompany fee increases and applicants would have the choice of paying a higher (or lower) fee to their preferred agency.

The most frustrating aspect of this proposal is that the government has already considered – and indeed has legislated for – a pilot scheme. Section 161 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 sets out measures for ‘processing of planning applications by alternate providers’ and sections 162-164 deal with details such as fees and payments. So some thought has clearly gone into how such a system would work; but more than two years later we are still waiting for the pilot to begin.

It is not unknown for clauses in previous planning acts to remain permanently in limbo without ever being enacted; but that’s not good enough, especially when the detail already exists and is ready to go. Interestingly, the same Act promised a procedure (also not piloted nor implemented) to allow applications for non-major developments to be submitted directly to the Planning Inspectorate where a council has a very poor record in speed or quality of decision-making. 

Competition in the planning system is implied by the government’s aim of making development control financially self-sufficient: applications would 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 systems work well in the field of Building Regulations, and have greatly enhanced the quality of service provided. The same is urgently needed in planning and a good start could be made by implementing section 161 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

Andrew Rogers chairs the Association of Consultant Architects’ Planning Action Group and is a former director of The Manser Practice. The ACA is the national professional body representing architects in private practice in the UK. Membership for eligible practices is free. For further details go to www.acarchitects.co.uk

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