Property developers are gearing up to lobby the government to be allowed to pay local authorities for fast-tracked planning services.
Housebuilders and commercial developers have been discussing ways to speed up planning decisions, including paying extra to ensure that their proposals are processed more quickly.
Barratt Developments chief executive Mark Clare told Construction News the cost to the housebuilder of delays in the planning process was “massive”.
“I would much prefer this to be funded properly because I want to get the decisions and I think there are a lot of planning departments that are under enormous pressure.
“They’ve had their budgets cut and some of their best people are probably gone as well. It’s bound to push the timescale out.”
He said he would be very happy to pay more for a dedicated service, “as long as there is an agreement that we pay this and we get these services. Hopefully it would free up the existing resources for other things as well”.
“The major housebuilders and big developers: their entire business welfare, in some instances, is in the hands of the planning system”
Mark Farmer, EC Harris
EC Harris head of residential Mark Farmer said: “The major housebuilders and big developers who have got big programmes of work: their entire business welfare, in some instances, is in the hands of the planning system.
“They are very keen [that] if they were able to spend more money and give themselves more certainty in terms of being able to push things through the planning system, they would see that as money well invested.”
Mr Farmer said planning minister Nick Boles would need to issue guidance.
“This would have to be a Department for Communities and Local Government-led discussion, as local authorities would be reticent to enter into one-off commercial resourcing arrangements without some kind of guidance.”
At present, developers can enter into planning performance agreements with local authorities, which set targets over timescales for planning applications (see box), but developers feel these do not go far enough.
Mr Farmer said developers have previously paid for or supplied lawyers to local authorities to work on legal agreements such as section 106.
He added: “The critical thing is whether it’s true additional resource rather than diversion of resource. If the system becomes who pays the most gets their application processed and others don’t, then that wouldn’t be acceptable.”
Mr Clare stressed that extra funding would have to pay for “real additional resources” that can be deployed to deliver larger schemes.
He said: “If the money is not used in that way, but instead is diverted elsewhere, I would see that as a breach of any agreement entered into.”
Planning performance agreements
Developers are currently able to enter into “planning performance agreements” with local authorities to “provide greater certainty and transparency” over the process of determining a large and/or complex planning application.
This agreement is chargeable, the cost of which varies between different local authorities and cannot be put in place after a planning application has been submitted.
Both the developer and local authority are expected to take shared responsibility for the implementation of a PPA.
Home Builders Federation planning director Andrew Whitaker agreed that a fast-tracked system would gain developer interest but only under the condition of “guaranteed additional resources”.
“History shows that we haven’t necessarily got that guarantee.
“There used to be a time when you didn’t have to pay planning fees and we had exactly the same discussion with local authorities then, wanting to introduce fees, saying they would be able to provide a better planning service if they had fees for planning applications.
“[As a result] the government introduced planning fees and we continually have this debate every time planning fees go up.”
“There is a conflict between having two classes of planning service and the possibility that someone who is receiving a slower track of planning will appeal and object”
Peter Rees, UCL
A Royal Town Planning Institute spokesman said: “We would be interested to know how a fast-tracked system might work in practice, but stress that additional resources must be sufficient to meet the task so they do not have a detrimental impact on the normal ongoing activity of planning departments.”
Peter Rees, former London corporation city planning officer and professor of planning at UCL’s Bartlett facility, warned there were limitations to fast-tracked services through which developers got “special treatment” for paid services.
“There is a conflict between having two classes - an ‘economy and club class’ - of planning service and the possibility that someone who is receiving a slower track of planning will appeal and object.”
He also raised concerns over how paid-for fast-tracked services would be applied across the UK for different developers.
“[In the longer-term] local authorities should look at improving planning resources as a general thing - in which everyone benefits.”
With a declining number of young people getting involved in the planning sector, the private sector should get involved with funding more training in the sector, he added.
“Picking the bright youngsters from schools and sponsoring their education [could help] and as part of that process: when the students qualify, they are articled to spend a minimum number of years in the public sector and then potentially move on into the private sector.”
A DCLG spokesman said: “Planning authorities can choose to set up planning performance agreements with applicants on major schemes. This means they can work with authorities to ensure they submit correctly completed documentation.
“However guidance is clear that this is done transparently, on a not-for-profit basis and in a way that avoids any risk of bias in considering the application.”