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27/02/2015

Money, money, money

Pile of money

Cuts to local authority planning departments are affecting everyone involved in the property sector. Could judicious use of planning performance agreements offer a way for developers to help make up the deficit? Yes, says the British Property Federation's Ghislaine Halpenny

Ghislaine HalpennyWhatever the colour of a new government, cuts will go deeper, particularly for councils, and planning departments will be among the worst hit.

The government consulted in 2011 on the localisation of planning fees, which prompted the Planning Advisory Service to carry out some impressive benchmarking work looking at the ways in which fees could be set at a local level.

Back then, the response from the industry was tentatively ‘positive’. There was a strong feeling that if there were to be an increase in fees, it should herald an improvement in the service delivered by local authorities, or at least that current standards would be maintained.

The coalition, rightly or wrongly, was not brave enough to make the jump to locally set fees, and the landscape has changed since then. Not only is there less money for planning departments, but there is also a severe skills deficit as planners are tempted into the private sector, where salaries and prospects for promotion far outstrip those on offer elsewhere.

The British Property Federation held workshops on Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) in 2011, and found lack of interest from both private and public sector representatives outside the South-East. These days, though, when the subject of PPAs arises there are tales of good (and bad) experiences from all over the country.

"Have planning performance agreements just removed the need for locally set fees? The answer to this may well be 'yes'"

What is clear is that PPAs clearly solve some very real problems. Although PPAs are primarily a project management tool with which to agree actions and dates, they can also involve a negotiated payment from the applicant to the local authority. This will be used to fund a dedicated planning officer to concentrate on the project in question or to fund other officers working on other applications. Either way, this payment ensures a good service, with a dedicated officer to help the PPA applicant through the system.

The question is, have PPAs just removed the need for lo'cally set fees? The answer to this may well be ‘yes’. Even if smaller applications that do not need a PPA are put to the bottom of the pile, as the larger applications are being paid for, this may free up other planning department resources to deal with the smaller applications.

Some suggest that the use of PPAs in this way highlights the need for a comprehensive review of the charges involved in the planning system. Others, however, see this as a way for the deficit in departments to be quietly met by larger developers, and for everyone to benefit.

Ghislaine Halpenny is assistant director for planning and development at the British Property Federation
 

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