Increased application fees will place an unfair burden on householders

Increased planning application fees unfair

The government has announced plans to increase planning application fees to help plug a shortfall in Council funding. Councils indicate that fee income covers approximately 50% of the cost of running a planning department, and wider Council budgets are being cut.

The consultation on increased fees (as well as increased competition in the delivery of services) runs until the 15th April:

Fees were last increased in 2012, when the cost of a householder application went up from £150 to £172. The government suggests that only high performing Councils should be able to set higher fees, thereby encouraging all Councils to provide a better service to the public.

It is certainly true that applicants are generally dissatisfied with the service provided by Councils. Officers are difficult to get hold of, provide poor service and make inconsistent decisions. Applications also take too long – Just Planning is still working with a London Council on a live application submitted in 2012.

The government’s focus should be on increasing efficiency rather than increasing fees. The current fees (of £172 for a householder planning application) should be sufficient to decide a conventional application for a householder extension and householders should not bear the burden of inefficiencies in the system.

Competition in the delivery of planning services

The two greatest problems with the planning system, at least when it comes to smaller/householder developments, are that (i) poor quality decisions are often made, requiring householders to abandon their plans to take their chances at appeal, and (ii) decisions take too long in a significant minority of cases, leaving homeowners and small developers in limbo.

Councils blame cutbacks for both, but these problems have been around for decades. The truth is that the decision making process is extremely inefficient.

There are 326 planning authorities in England and each processes applications in different ways. Virtually none have fully automated computer system that help officers generate reports and communicate with interested parties. Most private sector office workers would not recognise the processes carried out daily in planning departments (such as printing out all documents for paper files, and posting out reports to consultees in giant A4 envelopes rather than emailing them). There are opportunities to streamline the system.

Councils should be encouraged to amalgamate planning services and partner with private sector providers. Private sector organisations should be allowed to bid for contracts.

When it comes to smaller householder applications (which make up the overwhelming majority of applications submitted to planning authorities), the planning process is unmodernised. The government’s proposals have the potential to deliver marked improvements in performance, especially in terms of speed of decision making and the number of applications that a council can process for a given resource. Increases in fees (apart from a reasonable inflation-indexed) rise would be an unfair burden on householders and should not be necessary.