Sneaked in hurriedly just before Christmas, changes to planning rules means that developers will be able to go to private planning consultants of their choice rather than to local authority planning departments – a backdoor privatisation of the planning function.
Inevitably, private consultants will have worked closely with developers in the past.
This is potentially the biggest change to planning law for decades and is being introduced with no consultation and the minimum of debate.
It creates a loophole where, if a planning application is controversial, a local authority can deliberately drag its heels, see the application passed to a private consultant of the developer’s choosing and be approved. The local authority can then throw up its hands and say “Sorry, not our fault” when it patently is.
Current local authority planners will be seduced by initial high salaries offered by private consultants, leaving planning departments unable to function and with private consultants holding the balance of power.
Here is how today’s Daily Telegraph reports yesterday’s “debate” on something already agreed behind closed doors.
What a Christmas present for developers!
“Developers will be able to circumvent planning departments that take too long to process applications.
Housing minister Brandon Lewis told MPs the Government wants to pilot schemes which allow people to choose who processes their planning applications to speed up the process.
However, they were warned that allowing people to “shop around” by outsourcing planning applications risk undermining council planning departments.
He said this would “test the benefits of introducing competition” while local authorities will still make decisions on the applications.
But Labour’s Helen Hayes, a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee, warned the policy is “potentially very damaging” as it “weakens the accountability” of local authority planning services.
Speaking during report stage of the Housing and Planning Bill, Mr Lewis explained the new regulations would allow the communities secretary to decide who is able to offer their services to process planning applications.
He said: “Let me be very clear this evening with the House – this is about competition for the processing of applications, not the determination of applications.
“The democratic determination of planning applications by local planning authorities is a fundamental pillar of the planning system and will remain the case during any pilot schemes the secretary of state brings forward.
“Let me also be clear with the House that new clause 43 will require that any pilot schemes brought forward by the secretary of state will be for a limited period of time, specified in the regulations.”
Further proposals also outline how fees will be developed and allow the communities secretary to intervene if fees are judged “excessive”, MPs heard.
Mr Lewis said: “These new clauses will allow us to test in specific areas of the country and for a limited period of time the benefits of allowing planning applicants to choose who processes their applications.
“It’ll lead to a more efficient and effective planning system, better able to secure the development of homes and other facilities that our communities need and want.
“Introducing choice to the applicant enables them to shop around for services that best meet their needs and enable innovation in service provision, bringing new resources into the planning system and driving down costs while improving performance.”
But Ms Hayes, the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, said: “New clause 43 introduces the outsourcing of planning applications. This clause is potentially very damaging.
“It weakens the accountability of local planning services and it removes with one hand the fees which the Government is enabling local authorities to raise with another.
“Fundamentally, it’s a solution to a symptom of the problem of the disproportionate effect of local government cuts on planning departments.
“This is a symptom which we alleviated by the proper resourcing, which a system of new planning fees will facilitate.
“So I urge the Government to rethink this proposal, which simply undermines local planning departments.”