Moved by Lord Young of Cookham
267: After Clause 106, insert the following new Clause—“Local authorities and development management services(1) A local planning authority may set a charging regime in relation to its development management services.(2) In setting the amount of a charge under subsection (1) a local planning authority must secure that, taking one financial year with another, the authority’s income from charges does not exceed the cost to the authority of delivering the development management services for which the charges are imposed.”Member’s explanatory statementThe amendment would allow local authorities to develop a planning fees schedule that would enable the full costs of delivering its development management services, including the processing of planning applications, to be recovered.
My Lords, Amendment 267 is in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. This amendment has the support of the LGA and it would enable local authorities to charge planning fees that met the cost of providing the service, but would prevent them making a profit from it.
One of the themes of our debates on the Bill has been the importance of local authorities providing up-to-date plans. Indeed, my noble friend has made the point that up-to-date plans are more likely to produce the increases in housing that the country needs. But if we are to do that and have up-to-date plans, we need properly resourced planning departments. We also want to see planning applications promptly processed so that development can go ahead, again to meet housing need. That requires properly resource planning departments, but we know that they are all under pressure. Of the respondents to the Home Builders Federation’s recent SME development survey, 92% said that lack of resource in local planning authorities was a major barrier to growth—up from 90% in 2021.
Planning departments will also need to respond to proposals in the Bill, which has 47 clauses that relate to planning. They are going to have to get up to speed with that if they are to succeed in the Government’s ambition to improve the planning system. They are going to need to digitise and streamline the planning process. They will have to understand the implications of the NDMP and the new NPPF. They will have to deliver the new environmental assessment procedures and the new procedures on heritage and for neighbourhood plans, along with other changes to the planning system that we have been debating—not to mention the implication of street votes.
At the moment, planning fees do not cover the cost of processing planning applications. According to the LGA, council tax payers subsidise the planning system to the tune of £180 million per annum—money that could be spent on social housing. I know that the Government are consulting on an increase, but there are two problems. First, even if granted, the increase will not meet the gap or give us the well-resourced planning departments we need. Secondly, it will not enable individual local authorities that have active planning departments to set fees that cover their costs.
Recently, the Government have tabled Amendment 285C, but I am not sure that it addresses the problem. That amendment will allow certain bodies to charge fees for advice in relation to planning applications. My noble friend will explain what that means; I suspect that it is a response to Amendment 283 and will enable bodies such as the Environment Agency and Natural England to charge for advice on planning applications. In any case, the wording of the Government’s amendment would not cover the ability for local authorities to charge fees for the processing of planning applications, because it refers to the ability to charge fees for “advice” in relation to applications, and, of course, the authorities can already do that.
However, there is a wider principle at stake here. This Bill was going to be called the “Devolution Bill”. The Government want to decentralise and give local authorities the ability to respond to local needs, so here is a golden opportunity to put that policy into practice. I was rereading the foreword of the levelling-up White Paper published in February last year. It said:
“We’ll usher in a revolution in local democracy”.
It seems to me that here is a good opportunity to put that ambition into practice.
Finally, this central control sits uneasily with the freedom local authorities have to set building control fees, which are part of the same planning family. That is an anomaly I find difficult to explain. There is no central government control over parking charges, school meal costs, rents or swimming pool tariffs. Why are the Government so insistent on retaining control of planning fees? I ask my noble friend whether she is prepared to relax the Government’s vice-like grip on local authority. I beg to move.
My Lords, in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, who cannot be here this week, I will introduce her Amendment 283, to which I and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, have added our names. As it is her amendment, I will not do what I normally do and speak off the cuff. I have some notes from her, and I will, unusually, read from them.
A number of statutory consultees receive requests to provide expert information and opinion on planning applications and other planning cases. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, just mentioned some of them. The main statutory consultees include Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, Historic England and Highways England.
The volume of planning application requests has increased by 38% over the six years up to the financial year 2021-22. It is estimated that this trend will continue. Natural England alone received almost 18,000 requests in the last financial year. In 2019 the main statutory consultees estimated the total cost of providing this advice at approximately £50 million. Obviously, costs will rise with volume.
Amendment 283 inserts a provision into the Town and Country Planning Act. It would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations to allow statutory consultees to charge developers and others for the provision of such advice and information about planning applications and other planning cases put forward by developers and others to local planning authorities. This provision would bring the cost-recovery arrangements for the majority of planning applications under the Town and Country Planning Act, in line with the proposals in Clause 118, which will allow cost recovery in the case of nationally significant infrastructure projects.
Amendment 283 lays out what particular provisions the regulations may make, including who should pay, how much and when. It also defines an “excluded person” who cannot be charged, unless that person is the applicant for the planning permission. Broadly speaking, in at least the first instance, it seems that the charges would be for the planning applicant or developer to pay, and charges would not be levied on the planning authority. It is all very straightforward and essential if our hard-pressed statutory consultees are to provide a prompt and efficient service to both planning authorities and applicants in the face of the growing case load.
The Minister has ostensibly agreed, as the Government have laid what seems like a similar amendment, Amendment 285C. However, proposed new subsection (3)(b) in the government amendment could be interpreted as prohibiting a statutory consultee charging fees to a planning applicant in respect of the provision of advice to a local planning authority by any route. It could even prohibit current scenarios where a developer is willing to meet those costs under a voluntary agreement, for example under a planning performance agreement or a service level agreement. If that is not the intention in proposed new subsection (3)(b) in the government amendment, the ambiguity needs to be removed.
It would be good to have confirmation today from the Minister that the Government intend to ensure that the statutory consultees can recover their costs. I ask the Minister whether she might be prepared to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and other interested Peers between now and Report to identify a mutually satisfactory and unambiguous version of these two amendments.
My Lords, I speak to my Amendment 287, which would achieve a planning fee system that would cover costs for local planning authorities. It largely mirrors Amendment 267 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and my noble friend Lady Thornhill. I concur entirely with his arguments, but have some additional points to make in support of the plea to enable local planning authorities to set their own fees.
Too often planning applications, especially those that are complex, such as a major commercial development, have a set fee that nowhere near covers the costs, simply because there is so much more to planning applications than simply considering the plan details submitted at the first stage. I give an example of a recent application near me for a very large commercial development of 1 million square feet—probably a bit more than that—with a fee of £300,000. That is, and sounds, a considerable sum. However, in the end there were more than 200 different elements of the planning application to consider, 96 of which were amendments to the original plan. One of those, which I endeavoured to read, was of itself more than 100 pages long.
Understandably, these applications are hugely complex and require considerable expertise within the local planning authority to understand and respond to them. They are not just about the design and features of the building itself—there is also highway access, road safety, landscaping, biodiversity, trees, noise and light pollution, and the impact on the landscape. In my local authority, they have to consider drainage and, in this instance, 14 attenuation tanks had to be built in the end to deal with run-off from the development. Hugely complex issues are being considered, and it all has to be done within that set fee, regardless. It took nigh on two years for that application to be fully considered and ready for a planning committee. Clearly, the fee failed to cover the costs of the details of the application.
There are implications to all this. The Royal Town Planning Institute reckons that there were 42% cuts in planning budgets over the 10-year period from 2008. There have been increases since, not all of which have been directed towards day-to-day planning officers. Digitisation was one of the issues rightly being considered by the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, has said, the information is that local council tax payers are subsidising planning applications. If I told local people where I am that that was the case, they would rightly be very concerned, when other vital services have insufficient funding.
The RTPI research showed that one in 10 planning officer roles was unfilled. The reason for that is that so many expert planning officers find life much better rewarded—in many ways, not just financially—in private practice. The draining of local planning officers from the system is putting immense pressure on dealing with planning applications, and the timeliness of those, which again is hindering the Government’s aim to build more housing. None of this is helpful to achieving that.
We need local planning authorities to be able to set their own fees, not to make a profit but to cover their costs. I obviously support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, which my noble friend spoke to, because that too makes good sense. Why should Natural England, Historic England and all the other statutory consultees have to fund advice to planning applications from their own budgets? That does not make sense when planning applications are a commercial business. There is a really good argument for enabling local planning authorities to set their own fees and the statutory consultees, such as have been described, to recover their costs as well. I hope the Minister will be able to respond positively to all the amendments in this group.
My Lords, I do not want to take up too much time, because much has already been said, but I want to add a couple of points that have perhaps not already been made and expand on one point from the noble Lord, Lord Young. It is really important to acknowledge that the Government have found the means to increase planning fees for major and minor applications to 35% and 25% respectively. That is a positive move in the right direction and it has to be applauded.
As always, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, has nailed Amendment 267 and I want to expand on one of his comments, on devolution. In reality, councils are effectively asked—and in effect taxpayers are asked—to subsidise a whole range of services, not just planning services. Licensing fees are one, and the one that really gets my goat is supplying credit agencies with the electoral register. There is a statutory cap on what can be charged, regardless of the actual cost. Even with land searches, which councils have to do the work on, the Land Registry actually gets the cash. I think it is an area that is ripe for looking at, particularly as we are in cash-strapped times; other agencies and other companies, not just the taxpayer, should pay the bill.
My only caveat about letting each individual council area decide absolutely on its fees is that “To those who have, more shall be given”. In areas where developers want to build—they are usually the areas where it is most lucrative and they will get the most profit—they will be able to get away with charging much higher fees simply because they can. I think the opposite should be true, so Amendment 267, which refers to the actual costs, is the fairest way of dealing with this, especially as salaries and other incidentals also vary depending on the geographical area that a council sits in.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in giving general support to the thrust of the amendments, not only on the grounds advanced by other noble Lords but because they would mitigate something I regard as a positive evil. It has become possible in recent years for major developers proposing major projects to offer to local planning authorities to fund the salary of a planning officer to help deal with their case. When I had responsibility in a London borough for planning policy, I resisted accepting that sort of offer, but perhaps we could afford to do so.
This strikes to some extent at the heart of public confidence in the planning system, which is always a little fragile. Noble Lords who have been involved in it will know that there are always people who suspect that there has been a fix and that something corrupt is going on, but that is not the case in my experience. However, to allow a developer to fund a planning officer only exaggerates that perception and damages public confidence in the planning system. The way out of this, not least in the context of devolution, must be to allow the charges to cover the costs. It also seems appropriate if we want to empower elected officials in local authorities. It is open to the possibility of abuse, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, said, and a local authority could seek to deter applications by setting punitively high fees, but my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham’s amendment broadly addresses that possibility. It might need a little refinement, but the principle is none the less clear and acceptable. I encourage support for this amendment because we are not taking sufficient notice of the evil I mentioned, which harms the planning system.
My Lords, Amendment 267 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, was music to my ears; Amendment 287 from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is very similar. I have never understood why the public purse—the hard-pressed local government public purse at that—has to subsidise the development industry even for the very largest and most profitable developments. We have long spoken about a “polluter pays” principle in discussions on the environment; perhaps it is time we had a “profiter pays” principle in planning.
This issue has long been debated in local government. It is the subject of general incredulity that, at this time of financial crisis for local government, it is still allowed to continue. The Local Government Association has lobbied consistently on this point, stating in its recent response:
“We welcome the proposal to increase planning application fees, as it has for a long time been our position that there is a need for a well-resourced planning system. However, the Government should go further by allowing councils to set planning fees locally.”
I do not think it is a surprise to any noble Lords that local authority planning departments are at full stretch already. The noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to how they will respond to the 47 clauses in this Bill, never mind the issue of street votes—they will have plenty of work to do, that is for sure. It is an area of specialism where there are considerable shortages of professionals. In spite of a great deal of work being done to encourage young people to consider planning as a career and increase the number of routes into the profession, there remain difficulties in recruitment and retention. This is even worse in areas surrounding London, where it is almost impossible for local authorities to compete with the packages offered to planning officers in London.
This is exacerbated by the pressure of work; I know that many noble Lords in the Chamber will have sat through contentious planning application hearings, and I do not think any of us would be surprised to learn that our officers subject themselves to considerable stress. Therefore, it is only right that the industry makes a fair contribution to the cost of processing applications where it will reap substantial developer profit. This will enable local authorities to ensure that their planning teams are resourced adequately.
We also strongly support Amendment 283 in the name of my noble friend Lady Young, and so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. She is absolutely right that statutory consultees, often hard-pressed themselves, should be able to recover the costs from applicants. I understand that of the £50 million bill for this, cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, 60% was incurred by Natural England and the Environment Agency as the two statutory consultees dealing with the greatest number of planning consultations. It was as far back as 2018 that the top five statutory consultees came together to form a working group to identify potential alternative funding mechanisms to address the increasingly critical and unsustainable position. They made recommendations to DLUHC in March 2019. This work highlighted the need for a change in primary legislation to provide a broad enabling power under which statutory planning consultees could pass on the costs incurred in providing statutory advice to applicants, either as part of the existing planning fees or as an additional separate charge.
We welcome the inclusion of a power in the LURB to enable statutory consultees to recover costs incurred in providing advice on nationally significant infrastructure projects. That alone, though, makes only a modest contribution to addressing the challenge of establishing the sustainable funding model. I believe for Natural England, approximately 70% of the statutory consultation work will continue to be reliant on grant in aid. Will the Government introduce a power that will help us? If not, the Government are, in effect, committing to rely on the Exchequer as the primary means of funding the essential role that statutory consultees play in support of the operation of the planning system.
There is also the danger that we will create an inconsistent funding model between NSIP cases and non-NSIP cases that are of a comparable size or impact, such as large-scale housing developments. That could result in the need to prioritise resources for NSIP work over non-NSIP work, create inconsistency in service levels and potentially disadvantage large housing developments, which would be the exact opposite direction to the way we want to go. I hope that the strength of my noble friend Lady Young’s amendment will be taken into account.
Consideration should also be given to other statutory agencies. We have seen similar pressures on colleagues in the National Health Service, for example, where they have to comment on planning applications. There is also pressure on the resources of county councils to respond to matters relating to highways, flood risk, education and adult and children’s care provision—to name just a few—which is required on almost every major application and some smaller applications. It is simply not right that those costs should fall on public agencies whose funding is limited. If they were adequately recompensed, their ability to respond to applications in a timely manner might be improved.
Government Amendment 285C is similar to that proposed by my noble friend Lady Young—I hope we can at least agree on that—but, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, pointed out, this may not refer to charging for local authorities. We would want to see both local authorities and statutory consultees able to charge something like the recovery of the costs they incur in relation to the planning system.
My Lords, Amendments 267 and 287 have been tabled by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, respectively. I assure your Lordships that the Government understand the concerns about stretched resources in local planning authorities. However, we do not believe that enabling local planning authorities to vary fees and charges is the way to answer resourcing issues, and it does not provide any incentive to tackle inefficiencies. Local authorities having different fees creates uncertainty and unfairness for applicants and, if set too high, could risk unintended consequences by discouraging development.
My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, both brought up the question of whether we could loosen the local authority planning fees. As I have said, having different fees creates inconsistency, more complexity and unfairness for applicants, who could be required to pay different fee levels for the same types of development. Planning fees provide clarity and consistency for local authorities, developers and home owners. However, we are consulting on fees. We are seeking views on whether the additional income arising from the proposed fee increase could and should be ring-fenced for spending within the local authority planning department. Past increases have required a written commitment from all local planning authorities in advance of implementation.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Taylor of Stevenage, also brought up the issue of capacity and capability in local planning departments. We recognise the challenge that many local planning authorities are facing. We aim to ensure that local authority planning departments can build the capacity and develop the skills to support the design of our neighbourhoods, in order to regenerate our towns, deliver levelling up and implement the changes proposed in the Bill. We continue to work with local planning authorities and the broader planning sector to design and, we hope, deliver the support needed so that planning authorities have the skills and capacity necessary to modernise and implement change. Some of those things are in the Bill—for example, in respect of using technology.
Our priority is to ensure that all local planning authorities are able to increase their fees through a national fee increase. As we have heard, we are currently consulting on proposals to support the greater resourcing of local planning authorities through an increase in planning fees by 35% for major applications and by 25% for other applications. Subject to the outcome of this consultation and parliamentary approval, we would seek to introduce a fee increase at the earliest opportunity this year.
Amendment 283, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, seeks to enable statutory consultees, who are required to provide expert advice to local planning authorities and other planning decision-makers, to recover their costs from applicants seeking planning permissions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for tabling this amendment. We share the view that there is an increasing need for further funding opportunities to help key statutory consultees secure the right resources at the right time, so that they can continue to provide expert and timely advice in respect of proposals coming forward through the planning application process. That is why we have tabled our own Amendment 285C, to enable more cost recovery for work dealing with planning applications. This amendment bears many similarities to the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Young.
Our amendment will also allow statutory consultees to set their own charges for applicants, subject to limitations, and ensure that there is transparency as to the services provided and what is being charged, as well as empowering statutory consultees to withdraw their services when fees or charges have not been paid. The Secretary of State will also reserve the right to make regulations to manage any impacts on applicants—for instance, in relation to SME developers and householders. As this government amendment is being brought before the House today, I gratefully request that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, does not press her amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, brought up the issue of ambiguity. We have been engaging with colleagues across His Majesty’s Government. While we are satisfied that this does not inhibit applicants paying for advice provided on planning performance agreements, we would like to avoid ambiguity, so I am happy to take this into further consideration. Perhaps she could let the noble Baroness, Lady Young, know that.
On government Amendment 285C, statutory consultees play an important role in the planning application process, providing expert advice to local planning authorities and applicants on technical matters such as flood risk, biodiversity, heritage and highways safety. Going forward, they will continue to play an important role through our planning reforms. These bodies are pivotal in shaping development proposals, but such organisations face growing financial and resourcing pressures which will become more acute as the volume and complexity of projects increases.
Our estimates indicate that the main national statutory consultees currently deal with around 50,000 applications per year, many of which involve substantive engagement with the applicant to address the issues. We estimate that this overall service costs around £60 million per year. This does not include the thousands of applications dealt with by locally based but equally important statutory consultees such as local highways authorities and lead local flood authorities.
In the other House we moved a clause to introduce statutory consultee cost recovery within the nationally significant infrastructure project regime, and today I propose a similar measure to allow cost recovery on activities relating to applications under the planning Acts. This power will allow prescribed bodies named in regulations to charge fees for providing advice or information in connection with applications or proposals under the “planning Acts” as defined in Section 336 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. This includes activity related to planning applications under that Act, as well as applications for listed building consent and hazardous substances consent. This will cover substantive engagement throughout the process—from pre-app discussions all the way through to the discharge of conditions and reserved matters—between the statutory consultee and the applicants.
The Government recognise that many local planning authorities, as well as the wider planning sector, are facing capacity and capability challenges. That is why this power ensures that those who benefit from the advice foot the bill for it, so the cost of the advice will not be passed on to the decision-maker. In addition, elsewhere in the Bill we are taking powers to speed up the planning system, and we also want to ensure that smaller-scale applicants are not priced out. That is why we are taking powers to make regulations which exclude certain advice, assistance or information from charging. This should allow us to create a system which does not create additional barriers to SME developers and householders.
This measure will enable the establishment of a system that allows key statutory consultees to recover costs for the planning advice they give to applicants on a wide range of applications and related activities. I hope that noble Lords see how important this is to enable more effective and self-sufficient statutory consultees within the planning application process, and that they will support this important amendment.
May I ask the Minister to clarify one issue? I have listened very carefully to this debate but there is an issue that I have not fully understood. I heard her say that prescribed bodies will be able to secure cost recovery, but she has not said that local planning authorities will be able to recover their costs. She said that there could be an increase in the fees they are allowed to charge following the consultation, but that is not the same thing as permitting cost recovery; indeed, a lack, as yet, of a definition of cost underpins this whole debate. To my way of thinking, there is the immediate cost of administering and managing a planning application, with all the costs that may apply to that application. However, there is also the cost that a local planning authority might have in terms of the provision of IT services to the planning system, web services, office costs, heating, lighting, and so on—essentially, the overhead cost. As the Minister is going to think about all these issues, I hope very much to hear that the Government will consider full cost recovery for local planning authorities. However, as I say, I have not yet heard that during this debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this debate. There have been a lot of Youngs involved, and I will try to respond on behalf of both of them. Let me say straightaway that I very much welcome the government amendment, and I am sure that, in her absence, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, would also do so.
On the rest of it, I had hoped that, with this group of amendments, we might have found a chink in the Government’s armour that has been deployed throughout our debates. I am disappointed that we have not been able to make progress, and I know that the Local Government Association will also be disappointed.
I am grateful to all those who took part. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, made the valid point that the flat rate prescribed by the Government simply does not reflect the costs to a local authority of a complex planning application that spans a number of years; that point was not adequately dealt with.
I was most concerned to hear what my noble friend Lord Moylan said about developers offering to second to an overstretched planning department a planner who might assist them. That is rather like me saying to Test Valley Borough Council, “I understand your electoral department is under some pressure; I would like to second a returning officer to the forthcoming election”.
If my noble friend will allow me to say so, I did not suggest that they were offering to second somebody but to fund a planning officer who would be recruited from the pool of available planning officers.
I am grateful to my noble friend. None the less, the principle that he ended his speech with is still valid: a local authority should not be dependent on the good will of a developer to process that developer’s planning application. That goes against most of the codes of independence for local government.
In response to my amendment, my noble friend the Minister said that she could not accept it because of the uncertainty that might confront developers and the costs might be too high. But the charge under my amendment could only reflect the costs. A local authority could not charge a fee as a deterrent if it was not substantiated by the underlying cost.
As for uncertainty, what developers, housebuilders and any planning applicant want is for their application to be processed promptly and efficiently by a well-resourced planning department. That is their priority. I do not think that uncertainty about future fees comes into it, or it is right down their list of priorities.
Also, I do not see how this central control of planning fees sits with the whole language of the Bill, which is about empowering local authorities and giving them more autonomy to reflect local needs. It appears that, despite all that, we cannot trust them to set planning fees. I think the Government’s stance on this group of amendments sits uneasily with their whole philosophy, but, while I reflect on what to do next, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 267 withdrawn.
Amendments 268 to 270 not moved.
My Lords, as Amendment 270 has not been moved, I cannot call Amendments 270A or 270B, as they were amendments to the said Amendment 270.
Amendments 271 to 273 not moved.