Blog: Increased planning fees must lead to delivery of an improved service
By Steven Black, planning director at JLL in Scotland
Today the Scottish Government brings into force the largest single increase to maximum planning fees since the Scottish planning system was first brought into being. The new maximum fee for major planning applications across most categories of development will rise from £20,000 to £125,000. Developers for some of the larger scale of developments could now be faced with an increase in excess of 500%.
The decision comes after yet another review of the planning system, so often the target of political tinkering, and a relatively narrow opposition to the increase following the findings of an independent review.
Perhaps surprisingly for a development sector already being front-loaded with increasing expectations on developer contributions towards public infrastructure, there was reasonable support (44%) for the proposed fee increase, with the independent review panel concluding that increased fees could help service delivery.
No doubt this unlikely source of support is likely to have grown from more wide-scale recognition of constraints on council budgets and the resultant lack of resource which has negatively affected the planning system and with it the associated economic development and investment.
This leads us to the question of how the increased fees will be used to improve service delivery and stimulate the investment required to meet the visions set out within local development plans. Unfortunately this is where there is a glaring silence.
Support for fee increases was not unqualified. Indeed the findings of the independent panel made it clear that the fee increase will only be justified by improved performance and sought “a mechanism for penalties such as a refund in the planning fee being incurred where this is not achieved”. At this stage there is no mechanism or commitment upon local authorities to demonstrate how the money will be spent or how improved performance will be measured. Indeed there is no ring fencing of planning fees and a very real danger that funds will simply dissipate into a wider council budget.
Local authority planners are the guardians of our environment and our heritage, but they are also the tap to investment and growth which is so vital to the health and wellbeing of our towns and cities. The fee increase brings an opportunity to properly resource the planning system, not just with more hands on the ground, but with an increased recognition of the value of the profession and an incentivised and structured system that better reflects the modern requirements of the role.
Performance should be rewarded, not just blindly to the local authority but with personal recognition and a promotional structure that creates a platform for the ambitious and talented to strive.
The lack of any mechanism for reward is accompanied by no penalty for poor performance. In essence it doesn’t commit local planning authorities to change at all. Whilst some might argue that the fee increase was needed simply to cover the existing system, doing so would ignore some critical issues about the nature of investment decisions.
Developers and investors on these scale of projects already face a plethora of regulatory requirements, have to commit to significant expenditure at risk, and without any guarantee of development being approved. This is largely accepted within the industry, but higher fees put far greater pressure on achieving confidence at pre-application stages and certainty in terms of timescale.
Scotland competes for investment on a global stage and faced with the political uncertainties facing the country, attracting the right sorts of development and investment is more critical than ever. The Scottish Government has consulted on further changes to the planning system to come such as greater community empowerment. However, the system needs to empower its own planners first. Innovative ways to deliver required development need to be found in order to avoid increased planning fees becoming a barrier to development on the fringes of being viable. Innovative means of attracting investment need to be incorporated including the ability to consider reduced commitments and the use of simplified planning zones.
The fee increases put forward an opportunity not merely to mirror existing practice north and south of the Border but to implement a market-focused system that offers confidence to investors and is reactive to opportunity.
For now the planning system remains silent with respect to how extra funds can result in improved performance. A failure to react to the opportunity of increased planning fees and improve performance will result in a hidden economic cost in terms of the investment that it denies.
Bigger planning fees are here but with no government requirements on performance better planning will be a spending choice for local authorities and not a commitment.
- This article first appeared in The Herald