Unusually for DCLG (I think), the recent consultation on the deregulation of planning fees is being accompanied by a mini road show. I’m supposed to be at one today in Leeds, but the snow has cancelled it. The first, in London, was in front of the developers themselves. I followed DCLG’s announcement with a presentation putting forward our intentions for the consultation. It was a novel and interesting approach, and I think we all got something out of the fairly robust exchange of views. On reflection, I hadn’t thought enough about how best to explain some of the issues. In fact, despite working on the costs of planning for almost two years, there are a couple of things I hadn’t really thought about enough at all.
People have some kind of cultural mistrust of prices varying. I think it’s because we’re introduced to the idea in healthcare terms – reacting against the unfairness of your location dictating the quality of care you receive. Actually, it is stupid to pretend that we can deliver services for the same cost across the whole of England. Differences in wages (London weighting), travel times (cycling to site or a 100 mile round trip), scale and the skills and experience needed to service the differing mix of work received in rural, urban and AONB environments mean it would be bonkers to expect a householder to cost the same in Adur as Allerdale.
Planning fees should differ by a few quid across the country. But, they should be different in ways that we can understand. This we can do by having collections of “like” authorities making comparisons, and using detailed information about cost build-up rather than just the fee itself. The alternative is winners and losers, and this will translate into good and bad service.
I have met lots of LPA planners and, when taken as a bunch, I like them and their public service ethos. It makes me cringe to hear some of the stories that developers are good at recycling about how awfully they have been treated over the years. When you think about how much grief big private companies can get (everyone has a broadband story) it’s no surprise that when we get it wrong it rankles – there is no choice of provider. Even worse, the more effectively the local government group works as glue the more we look like a monopoly and a cartel all rolled into one.
In this situation we have to police the fees regime as a whole and how individual LPAs are using it. The developers I spoke to wanted to reinstate something like the audit commission (no confidence in the ombudsman) but I think they’ve underestimated the power of transparency and collective responsibility.
The LGA has a proposal called “freedom to lead”. I’m interested in planning fees – but I would be the first to argue that child safety or dealing with the vulnerable is much more risky. If we trust peer review and sanction for these life and death situations, shouldn’t we also trust it when understanding cost recovery? This is one of those situations where it will work because we have to make it work. This is our purpose.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
Not sure there is much I can do about this, apart from empathise. I’ve seen cost recovery as a single issue from the perspective of local government. Developers see it alongside a revitalised CIL, probably more expensive consultation requirements, increased build costs from CSH and an increased VAT rate. Not to mention a generally wobbly outlook and continued uncertainty over actually which bugger has hidden all the money we used to have.
However, the planning fee represents somewhere comfortably sub 1% of development costs. Compared to the time-related cost of poor turnaround it really is not a deal breaker.
I was really pleased to be taken to task quite so thoroughly by a room full of development industry notables. I was even more pleased to hear a couple of very sincere offers to help shape our approach so it fitted the needs of users as well as the needs of producers. But, as the recent poll showed it seems unlikely that users really will respond to a consultation saying “yes, we’d gladly pay more”. Let’s understand how the process pans out, and then we can negotiate how to implement any changes like grown-ups.
As I think everyone at that London roadshow would privately acknowledge, the no-nothing option doesn’t look good from anyone’s perspective. We have more chance of making a fairer simpler and useful system now than ever before, and because we can recycle our previous work on MEPS we can do this without creating red tape and cheaply.
Along with Richard, I have been working with a group of authorities on a pre-emptive system for working out costs and distribution of costs across applications. I have also been along at the DCLG meetings and will add a couple of points that I picked up:
Both LAs and their clients would like to have a system that was simpler to work out the fee for a given proposal, LAs would that system to fit in with the way that they already collect data about applications. Both do want to see some explicit way of linking the fee to the amount of work that is taken to consider an application.
Whereas the developer group were obviously worried about a new system that perpetuates or worsens complacency about costs by simply passing off inefficiencies onto the developer. They should be pleased to know that most of the LA groups that we have spoken to have instinctively seen that comparability is a big incentive to keeping costs down ( and processes efficient).
But one of their big concerns is that when the costs of dealing with the wide range of matters that are material to good planning decisions are added up, there will be a big collective thought balloon saying ” too much!!!”. I can share this – the costs of gathering in a full range of information from many sources and considering the options is currently still high and there has been a reluctance to trim back (witness the failure to reduce the number of Statutory consultees in the 2009 consultation on this). Will some authorities chose to reduce costs by cutting back on the range of issues considered? This would set up a further scope for local variation – not just about regional variations of cost but about pared down service levels or pared down planning.
Given these concerns what will be the impact of the localism proposals especially the emphasis on neighbourhood planning? It will be a challenge to bring in cost recovery fees during this next period of systems change. For me this is all the stronger argument in favour of some form of universal framework to underpin the local costs and fees.