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Introducing Competition to Planning Processing

There are three main groups of stakeholders in the planning application process, the applicant, the local authority and the neighbourhood. Each views the process of having a planning application determined in different ways and each has different objectives for the process.

In deciding whether or not to introduce competition to processing applications, as opposed to determining them, government needs to consider each of these viewpoints fully and make sure that when decisions are made about the best way forward, any changes are properly assessed and the implications are understood. It is unlikely that all three stakeholders will be fully satisfied with any changes, there must therefore, be a clear rationale for the changes which is properly and fully communicated.

Introducing competition and choice means that there will be different process routes available to the stakeholders, we should consider how this looks to each of them.

What will the process look like from the applicant’s point of view?

Where the applicant is a householder, possibly seeking to extend or amend their own property, it is likely that their experience of the process will be limited, they may do it only once in their lifetime. Consequently, many will choose a process route which is recommended to them by others, possibly friends, neighbours or their chosen agent. Their involvement may well be limited to paying the fee requested and waiting for the decision, hopefully following progress through an online facility.

For those who use the process more frequently such as agents or building companies it is highly likely that they will seek out the best process for any one application and may take the opportunity to try out different process routes in order to get the best service possible.

The question to be resolved is “what is meant by the best service possible” and inevitably for the applicant or their agent this is going to involve having their application passed in the shortest time possible.

If this is the factor that determines the choice that applicants make, then providers will start to “market” themselves on the basis of how well they meet those requirements. How quickly will the organisation reach a decision and how likely is it to be in favour of the applicant?

What will the process look like from the council’s point of view?

For local authorities the risk is that resources currently allocated to processing applications may not be properly utilised if the applicant chooses other organisations to do that work. When might they be able to influence the applicants’ decision? For example, would the provision of pre-application planning advice become a more powerful advocating mechanism, after all, determination services will remain with the local authority in the area.

Further, the need to coordinate and liaise with other providers of processing may introduce additional monitoring and reporting needs. Who will know about the progress of an application? Who will be able to answer the telephone calls from applicants?

Similarly, how will the local authority properly determine an application following the receipt of a recommendation from the processing provider? Let’s all hope that the authority doesn’t feel the need to re-evaluate the application, thereby slowing the process down, increasing the costs and possibly reigniting the debate about resources needed to do the job.

What will the process look like from the neighbourhood’s point of view?

The neighbourhood is usually most energetically exercised when objecting to a particular development. How will they view a negative recommendation from a processing provider which is positively overturned by the local authority? What provision will there be for appeals?

Will the process for calling in an application be the same? Will the neighbourhood notify the processing provider or the local authority? If the local authority is advised will it be their responsibility to notify the processing provider?

What about costs and charges?

Separately to the stakeholders’ points of view, one question asked in the current publications is “why not just allow authorities to charge the full cost of planning applications?”.

The way in which this is phrased implies that if full charging was permitted the issues of resources within the planning process would go away however in none of the stakeholder scenarios above does cost appear as a major issue.

Simply charging the applicant more will not solve the issues currently being experienced by all concerned but what is equally certain is that unless any new processes are properly introduced there is a high likelihood that costs will go up and the clamour for reflecting this in charging will increase.

Next steps

DCLG has established a timetable into 2017 to make progress via pilot studies and will no doubt consult widely before making any recommendations. In the meantime, local authorities must continue to improve their working processes and reduce their costs.

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