Local authorities are taking financial advantage of a sclerotic planning system by charging fees for what was once a free, informal service, says Andrew Rogers
Once upon a time the planning system was a public service, provided free of charge to all in the interests of good husbandry of the environment. But when charges for this facility were introduced, the original ideal of a benefit provided through some form of universal taxation, like refuse collection, street lighting or law enforcement, was inevitably lost forever.
A survey conducted by Haymarket’s PlanningResource has highlighted the latest trend that allows local authorities to take financial advantage of a sclerotic planning system by charging fees for the initial pre-application planning advice – once a free, informal service.
At the 125 authorities surveyed, fees ranged from zero (11 councils) to £26,458 (for a 250-house proposal in Bedfordshire). Of the 31 authorities that charge £1,000 or more for pre-app advice on schemes of five units, 26 are in London.
There’s no doubt that planning and development services are expensive to provide, but the problem, as many architects will testify, is that the quality and reliability of advice on offer varies enormously.
When the Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) asked its members for their experiences of pre-apps, responses included: ‘We have had schemes refused after the LPA provided details of what they would accept’; ‘We used to have a good relationship with planning officers but the pre-app process has formalised this out of existence’; ‘The reply could not have taken more than two hours to concoct. All pre-app advice is also caveated with the phrase that the views shown are the officer’s own’; ‘The time to respond is often longer than the application process itself, the advice is generic and in some cases more expensive than the full planning application fee.’
An increasing number of architects will tell you that they have stopped using pre-apps altogether, finding it more efficient (and indeed cheaper) to submit a formal planning application and use that as a ‘sounding-board’.
There is an alarmingly varied standard of service
This becomes even more attractive when the pre-app advice simply regurgitates the local plan policies and prejudices that competent practitioners can find out for themselves; or when the advice is later contradicted by a more senior officer or is inadequate because it overlooks a key policy. So while there is a wide range of charges, there is equally an alarmingly varied standard of service. And on top of all this, the advice is not mandatory, timely or legally binding.
The Planning Portal recently asked how many of its applicants believed pre-app advice had been advantageous. Only 11 per cent believed it had been productive. This compared with 43 per cent who had found the previous informal pre-app system helpful.
But the government and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) strongly support pre-apps. The NPPF claims pre-app engagement ‘has significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system for all parties’.
If only the reality matched the aspiration: how do high fees and variable standards square with the NPPF urging LPAs to ‘encourage take-up of any pre-application services they offer’?
Maybe the answer, as the ACA has argued before, is to open the planning system to commercial competition as was done with the Building Regulations process. At a stroke this will allow variable planning fees (as long requested by the Planning Officers’ Society), encourage those that perform poorly to improve, and could create a development boom.
The chief executives of many councils are today financiers or accountants, often with a background in the commercial world. They should be well qualified to sort out the pre-application system and get it on to the right track, before the government steps in and does it for them.
Andrew Rogers chairs the ACA’s Planning Action Group and is a former director of The Manser Practice. This column is supplied by the Association of Consultant Architects, the national professional body representing architects in private practice in the UK. Membership for eligible practices is free, please visit www.acarchitects.co.uk