Increase in Planning Fees – will they lead to a more efficient service?

22 Jan 2018

Policy area: Planning

Policy Officer Sam Bensted shares his views on the recent increase in planning fees and the potential for greater collaboration between the private sector and local planning authorities.

The first increase in planning fees since 2012 came into effect last week through the introduction of The Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2017.

These regulation changes provide for an increase in fees of 20%, introduce fees for permission in principle applications and enable fees to be charged by any Mayoral or Urban Development Corporation for providing pre-app advice.

Whilst undoubtedly this fee increase will be warmly welcomed by Local Planning Authorities (LPAs), the key question will be whether this development will lead to measurable improvements to the services provided to applicants.

Consistent across all council services, planning departments across the country have faced significant cuts to their budgets since 2008. However, unlike other local services, planning departments have been restricted in their ability to increase their application fees to plug budgetary shortfalls - until now.

On the face of it, a 20% rise sounds like quite a substantial increase, although no doubt LPAs will note that this is the first increase for over 5 years. Developers should also be reassured that part of the deal from government is that any increase in fees will be ring-fenced to be re-invested by councils into their planning services. However, a word of caution - the requirement does not stop a council from being able to divert their existing planning budget from the general council pot towards other services that are also under pressure.

A significant challenge for LPAs in recent years has been the recruitment and retention of planning officers, not least because the private sector simply provides higher salaries. In this context, it is encouraging that anecdotally at least, we hear that increases in fees will be used to recruit more staff to planning officer roles – something welcomed by the development community. This is unlikely to be the silver bullet however, and innovative solutions are clearly needed such as Public Practice. Launched by the Mayor in partnership with the development sector, the scheme aims to recruit planners for year-long placements in local authorities and act as a ‘new pool of talent’.

Is this the start of something new? Might there be scope for even further partnership opportunities between the private sector and LPAs? Given the number of large schemes in the development pipeline in London (particularly around the OPDC area, the Elizabeth Line route and Barking Riverside), a future initiative could involve graduate planners from the private sector completing short term placements working specifically on a large development scheme. Such an initiative would arguably be mutually advantageous by increasing the short-term resource of an LPA and enhancing a graduate planner’s working credentials by experiencing the ‘other side’ of the planning process.

We are now in our 6th year of partnership with GL Hearn in conducting the Annual Planning Survey – a joint survey which aims to capture the sentiment of LPAs, applicants and their advisors in relation to new and emerging policies in the planning sector. The most recently published survey from 2016 found that changes to planning application fees were supported by 53% of LPAs and 31% of applicants as a policy which was likely to improve the speed of the planning process.

It will be interesting to see if there has been any movement in perceptions in the most recent survey – which is due to be published later this year. As to whether the increase in fees announced last week leads to an improved service or just represents an additional burden for the development sector - it is clearly too early to tell.  Undoubtedly, it will take time for any extra investment in services to have a material effect – it may therefore be a couple of Annual Planning Surveys down the road until any potential improvements are captured in the responses!