Draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2002

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Apart from the reference to speeding up the process of listed building consent, which the hon.

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Member for Cotswold mentioned, there is no reference in the Green Paper to the other two issues, although both are real issues for councils such as mine and others. I hope that the Minister's answer will give at least some hope to councils such as mine that their council tax payers will no longer have to bear such huge costs simply because of the historic area in which they live.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) is desperately hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Amess, to raise another couple of brief points with the Minister.

4.49 pm

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I also wish to raise a couple of brief points with the Minister. I have examined the proposals, but cannot see any provisions concerning the costs for applicants of appealing against bad decisions by planning officers—often decisions made for reasons best known to themselves. Applicants have to make a substantial layout to go to appeal. The last time that I looked into it, about 60 per cent. of the applications that the Doncaster metropolitan borough council had rejected were overturned on appeal. People have to make a huge layout to appeal and it is difficult to see why so many applications are turned down in the first place. I hope that the Minister will advise me if I have failed to spot any relevant provisions in the regulations.

I support the hon. Member for Cotswold on pre-application or scoping reports. They are mainly used for big applications. The ones that cross my desk are certainly as big a doorstep sandwich, and must consume a lot of planning officers' time and council tax payers' money. I support charging for officers using their time to examine scoping reports. I hope that the Minister will introduce proposals on that in the near future.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has the same problem that we have in the Cotswolds—enforcement, which often leads to retrospective planning applications that consume an enormous amount of time. I see nothing in the regulations to cover extra costs for prospective planning applications and the Minister may like to reflect on that in the context of the planning Green Paper.

Mr. Hughes: I can only concur. I am aware of that problem. People who ignore rules and regulations on planning to do their own thing can cause difficulties, so the Minister should reflect on what to do about it.

4.52 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): I have three quick points for the Minister. Until about nine months ago, I spent most of my working life in architectural practices and encountered various problems in my work.

My first point is about the cost of small extensions and the calculation of the time period. If someone

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knocks down a conservatory that was built a few years earlier, he still has to put in a new application because the area will have been changed from the earlier assessment, although because the conservatory is probably at the back of the building and cannot be seen, people often do not understand the need to go through a whole new set of costs and fees. The chances are that someone in that situation will try to avoid making a planning application because the costs are too high, but in doing that, will avoid building, as well as planning, regulations. That is the real danger. In getting round the system, people avoid basic safety, health and environmental measures that are required by statute.

The review should perhaps consider how the period affects problems such as new extensions. Once an extension has been done, people do not want always to be caught by the need to make another planning application 20 years later, but we should ensure that people always comply with building regulations.

At the other end of the scale, the second application is free of charge if the first application is turned down. Several developers use that as a tool to try to get consent. Several developers twin-track by paying two sets of fees for the first application, withdrawing the first application and submitting a second one, while appealing on the first application if it is turned down. A system of charges for the second application would help to prevent what are usually large companies and developers from putting pressure on the local authority and exploiting the system.

Many local authorities like fees to be paid before they will look at any plans, so if someone submits an application to a local authority and then withdraws it because they have spoken to planning officers, they often find that they cannot get their fee back. I was given an example of someone who wanted to build a conservatory. The planning officer told them that it had to have a tiled roof. They thought that that was barking mad, withdrew the application, and said that they would do something else. The planning officer told them that they could not have their fee back. It strikes me that the applicant behaved reasonably. They might have engaged their council in some cost, but they were also put to some expense by having someone draw up their plans and by being told that something that was sensible and reasonable could not go ahead. They withdrew the application, but still lost extra money.

4.56 pm

Ms Keeble: I shall try to deal with all the issues that were raised.

The hon. Member for Cotswold spoke of the Green Paper proposals and time scales. The consultations have not yet closed, and we have not yet drawn our conclusions, so I do not want to pre-judge them. Several of the proposals will require primary legislation, and we are hopeful about that timetabling.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Hopeful about what?

Ms Keeble: I am hopeful that we will get a slot, so that we can quickly take forward whatever conclusions arise from the consultation process. However, it is hard to give an absolute commitment at this stage.

On the question about riding stables and classes of businesses, I am told that only the building used for riding stables would incur fees for commercial activity because it is used for business, not agricultural, purposes. I hope that that provides the hon. Gentleman with the clarification that he needs.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) raised the question of fees for a listed building. The fees are not included in the legislation because there is no fee for listed building consent. However, the points raised by the hon. Member for Bath related to costing, and we intend to commission research to consider whether the scope of activities covered by fees should be amended. I am sure that the points raised by the hon. Gentleman will be taken up and fed into that process.

The hon. Members for Bath and for Teignbridge and my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) made several points that relate to the planning process, rather than the fee structure. Everyone agrees that there are some real problems with the planning process, hence the planning Green Paper in which some of the concerns are being addressed. The intention behind the proposal is not to change the fee structure, but in crude terms to uprate the scale to provide an aggregate increase that is more in line with the cost. It will not reflect the individual cost in every application. The aim is to increase the aggregate fee income for local authorities so that it matches more closely the aggregate costs.

The hon. Member for Bath and my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North made an important point about the cost of the major infrastructure projects. It is addressed in the planning Green Paper, and is one of the changes proposed in it to enable local authorities, which are excluded from the fee structure, to charge for pre-application discussions. It is well recognised that they are a significant factor in the cost of planning departments. I hope that that deals with both issues raised by the hon. Member for Bath.

Mr. Foster: I have a point on the major developments. I am sure that the Minister recognises that I gave an extreme example when I mentioned the Southgate development, with its £500,000 and rising costs compared to only a few thousand pounds in the planning fee.

When the Minister says that local authorities may be allowed in due course to charge for pre-application discussions, does she have in mind a mechanism to make those fees in the order of magnitude of £500,000? Unless there is a significant increase in the mechanism to raise money, local authorities and their council tax payers will continue to lose out. An

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application fee of £11,000 and a pre-application discussion fee of several hundred thousand pounds would not seem quite right.

Ms Keeble: Discussion on the issue properly belongs as part of the debate on the Green Paper proposals. There are many arguments on both sides as to whether such a fee should be charged, and if so what the scale should be. They need to be dealt with through that process, because there are many conflicting issues about the principle, never mind the scale.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not expect the Minister to be able to give me an answer now. However, it would help the Committee, and inform the House and public in general, if we had an idea of how much the regulations would raise, and of her Department's estimate of the aggregate cost spent by all planning authorities. That would help us to see the gap between what the fees raise and what cost is incurred by planning applications throughout all authorities.

Ms Keeble: We expect that about £20 million extra will be raised.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Extra?

Ms Keeble: Yes, that is the additional sum that may be raised in England in 2002–03. If I say that that is an uprating of 14 per cent., I leave the hon. Gentleman to use his maths to work out what we spend now. I hope that he will not ask me for that figure. I think that it is something like £200 million. I will probably be challenged about whether that is fact and told that it is not the right figure, but I hope that that was helpful.

Mr. Foster: As the Minister is so well briefed and has the figures at her fingertips, will she tell us what she understands to be the current aggregate cost to local authorities of the work on planning applications? I know that the hon. Member for Cotswold asked for that figure at a later date, but the Minister clearly has so much good briefing with her that she might be able to tell us now.

Ms Keeble: I cannot, I am afraid. I shall repeat what I said previously. As a result not of figures plucked at random, but of a properly commissioned and detailed study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, we estimate that the increase would better produce an income that would better match the aggregate cost to local authorities. That means that there must be closer alignment than there was previously. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bath wanted a form of words, and I think that he now says that he does not like them. Local authorities need the money.

As part of the spending review, we are looking at the whole issue of resourcing the planning system. The need for proper resources is taken seriously, not least because—I am staggered that no one has raised this yet—there is also an issue about delays in the

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system. Obviously, we are anxious to ensure not only that local authorities can recoup the costs of the planning system, but that they are able to provide a better service. So that the hon. Gentleman knows, the aggregate cost is expected to be about £650 million, and only part of that cost is fees.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I should like to be clear about this. I understand that the existing costs are slightly more than £200 million. The increase of 14 per cent. will raise them by another £20 million, and the Minister says that the total aggregate cost for all local authorities dealing with planning applications will be £650 million. In other words, even when the increase provided for in the regulations is introduced, it will still only be a third of what is required. Is my assumption correct? If so, will she consider the issue in the context of the Green Paper?

Ms Keeble: Of course there are issues about the cost of the planning system. As I have said, we are considering the resourcing of the planning system as part of the spending review. We have also said that the fees will cover more closely the cost of the application process, which does not include pre-application discussions. There is also an issue about listed building consents. It is clear that that is not part of the fees structure. As I hope that I have made clear, we are considering that through several different mechanisms, including through the review of the structure and in our discussions on the Green Paper about pre-application discussions. I hope that that deals with the issues about total costs and explains how we are trying to assist local authorities to recoup the total costs in a more constructive way. At the same time, we are considering how to improve the performance of local authorities because there is something of a backlog. I hope that I have dealt with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bath, unless he has some other mathematical questions.

 
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Prepared Wednesday 6 March 2002