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Housing and Planning Bill: District council responds to ‘alternative providers’ amendment

Words: Laura Edgar
Housing / iStock

As North West Leicestershire District Council responds to MPs’ concerns that a clause in the Housing and Planning Bill is “effectively about the privatisation of the planning service”, the RTPI publish its latest briefing.

Communities secretary Greg Clark tabled the amendment before Christmas, which would allow planning applications to be processed by “alternative providers”.

The amendment says the secretary of state “may by regulations make provision for a planning application that falls to be determined by a specified local planning authority in England to be processed, if the applicant so chooses, not by that authority but by a designated person”.

It adds that this does not affect a local planning authority’s responsibility for determining planning applications and only applies until a specified date.

Jim Newton, head of regeneration and planning at North West Leicestershire District Council, highlighted the amendment reference “if the applicant so chooses”. The amendment, he said, is “without the need to demonstrate the planning authority concerned is failing to determine applications in time”. At worst, it could “significantly reduce” the existing incentive for a planning authority to “grasp the nettle and determine controversial applications in a timely manner”.

“For a nervous planning authority, if another ‘designated person’ is dealing with the application, then it may feel that it has plausible deniability if a controversial planning permission is subsequently granted. In this way, it could be used as a means to avoid making unpopular decisions,” said Newton.

He added that it is not clear what problem this would solve. The “vast majority” of planning authorities are doing an “excellent job in challenging circumstances”.

“There is already a sanction against poor performance,” he said.

Talking about North West Leicestershire District Council, Newton said the council is fortunate that it has a strong market and the relative local market stability enables the council to commit, with a “reasonable degree of confidence, to ensure its planning department is adequately resourced”.

He said the district council is achieving 90 per cent in customer satisfaction, which is “none too shabby” in an area as “contentious as planning”.

“Others may not be so fortunate, for them it could be far more difficult to set a budget, and that challenge would be magnified if a new and unknown risk such as competition were to be introduced,” Newton concluded.

The RTPI has published a briefing ahead of the second reading of the Housing and Planning Bill in the House of Lords.

On the “alternative providers” section of the bill it states that it is “imperative” that any “significant” changes to the planning system are evidence-based and part of a proper evaluation process.

“As with the bill’s other provisions, it is critical that the planning system is not made more complicated for applicants and communities, and that we do not increase the unresourced burdens on local authorities.”

The briefing continues by saying a planning application is not simply a transaction between an applicant and a determining body – it is not only the applicant’s interests that need to be considered.

“Currently, local authority planning officers will take into account the communities they serve when making their recommendations to elected councillors. Any new approach would need to safeguard that responsibility.”

The RTPI wants any pilots to be voluntary, properly evaluated and a level playing field on fee flexibility, while conflicts of interest, the institute says in the briefing, need to be resolved and local community interests properly protected.

“We will also need to look carefully, as the body responsible for professional standards in planning, at such issues as professional competence,” adds the briefing.

The full briefing can be found on the RTPI website.