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Housing and Planning Bill: Fee flexibility pilot schemes ruled out

Words: Laura Edgar

Government dismisses RTPI-backed amendment introducing pilot schemes to test fee flexibility and ‘invest more in the planning process’.

This week’s final session of the Housing and Planning Bill’s passage through the House of Lords considered two amendments, 123A and 123B. 123A sought to ensure that if a provider processes a planning application, it then also processes connected planning applications; 123B sought to allow planning authorities the opportunity to enter into a “fee flexibility pilot scheme”.

However, the latter ammendment – proposed by Lord Shipley following consultation with the RTPI – was not considered “for reasons of pre-emption” following the passing of Amendment 123A.

“If there are to be pilots to test whether more competition would help the planning system,” said Lord Shipley, “it is in the best interests of good policy-making to test whether more resources alone would help.”

Amendment 123B proposed a fee flexibility pilot scheme to run alongside the government’s competition pilot, with “cast-iron commitments to reinvest greater income in the planning process”.

These commitments, suggested Shipley, could include: “information technology, greater joint working across councils, and the further training of staff towards professional accreditation.”

Speaking to The Planner, Richard Blyth, head of policy at the RTPI, explained:

“Amendment 123A was introduced by the government to deal with the situation whereby a major application is handled by an outside provider, but subsequent applications on the same scheme end up with the local authority.

“There was concern that this would mean that local planning authorities got the loss making work and also had to spend time being briefed on the initial application’s background.”

The RTPI proposed amendment 123B to Lord Shipley.

“Government has said that the competition pilots are designed to address two concerns,” explained Blyth: “The lack of resources in planning departments, and the issue of performance.”

“The government’s position “is that competition is the only way to address both of these – although we’ve questioned the evidence adduced for this view.”

If the only pilots are competition pilots, said Blyth, “we will never know what would have happened if local planning authorities were allowed to charge higher fees but remain the only body able to commission services, either in-house or out of house; we wanted parallel pilots which would test this too.”

The government believes that this is possible using the legislation as drafted. However, said Blyth, “the greater explanation of the government’s intentions in the consultation document does not suggest that anything like parallel pilots is intended.

“We hope that in the period after Royal Assent, and while draft regulations are being prepared, we could get a more robust commitment to parallel pilots than we have seen. My concern is that unless this fee flexibility is put in the same evaluation mechanism as the main pilots, it will be difficult to tell what works best.”

“The fee flexibility system has not hitherto been presented as a matter for evaluation in the same manner as the competition pilots.”