The government is consulting on allowing the private sector to compete with planning authorities to provide planning application processing services and a new fast track service. The proposals aim to tackle the frustration of developers at the slow planning process - and therefore speed up development and particularly house building throughout the country.

The Housing and Planning Bill contains powers to allow for competition to be tested in the planning application process. Under the proposals, applicants could either apply to the local planning authority or to an 'approved provider'. The approved provider would process the application, taking into account statutory requirements for notification, consultation and decision making as the authority would do. The approved provider would make a recommendation to the planning authority, but the authority would make the final decision on the application - and would be required to do so within a specified period (a week or two has been suggested).

As well as streamlining the planning process, the government considers that cost savings might be achieved of up to a fifth. The hope is that the market would be self-regulating by having multiple approved providers who would compete. The proposals allow for the government to step in if fees become excessive and for fees to be returned where the required service and performance standards are not met.

It is not intended that there will be outsourcing of the planning authority's powers. Approved providers would not be able to process applications in which they or their staff dealing with the application have an interest. They would also need to demonstrate that they have the professional skills and capabilities to process planning applications. The consultation asks for views as to how the process for measuring skills and capabilities would be established.

The proposals will be welcomed by developers who are generally happy to pay higher fees - if their decision is dealt with quickly. However, a competitive tendering approach inevitably leads to some concerns and questions:

  • Does the lowering of costs and speeding up of the planning process inherently conflict with the desire to maintain high levels of skills and capabilities in the planning system?
  • Is the democracy in our planning system adequately protected if private companies make recommendations on applications to authorities who potentially only have a short window of time to make a decision?
  • What ability would the authority have to challenge the level of information gathered in the recommendation?
  • Should there be geographic restrictions on where the approved providers can operate? If the provider is not based in the area subject to the application, there might be concern the matter has not been dealt with by people who understand the local area's needs.

The consultation demonstrates the government's commitment to accelerating the planning process, the speed of which has long been a criticism levelled at local planning authorities. At the conclusion fo the consultation we will see whether the concerns mentioned above have been identified and how warmly received the proposals are by local authorities, developers and residents.

The consultation runs to Friday 15 April 2016.