The latest of our series focussing on the Housing and Planning Bill considers the controversial Government amendment to “test the benefits” of introducing competition to the processing of planning applications. Amidst the furore surrounding many of the Bill’s provisions, such as those on affordable housing and permission in principle, this one caught many by surprise.

What is proposed?

Applicants in designated areas will be able to choose whether to have their planning application processed by a “designated person” rather than by a specified local planning authority.

As with many aspects of the Bill, Regulations and Development Orders will contain the all-important detail about how this will work in practice. There are a multitude of  issues of principle though.

What does it mean for planning?

Denounced in the Lords as being tantamount to the privatisation of planning, this has the potential to change the face of development control as we know it, if adopted across the board.

However, before the death knell sounds in council planning departments across the country, some key points to bear in mind:

  • the clause makes it clear that determination of the application will remain the responsibility of the specified local planning authority;
  • it is a pilot to test the waters – it will run in specified areas for a specified time period;
  • it will be optional – applicants can choose whom they want to process their application;
  • it will apply only to developments of a “specified description” – we await clarity as to what that means.

While much of the focus (and concern) centres on private sector processing, the government has made clear its intention is to foster innovation amongst councils through competition. Indeed, there will be opportunities for those able to seize them.

Some food for thought

  • Process vs determination – an artificial distinction? To what extent can they be separated, given that qualitative judgments are often required throughout the life of a planning application? Is it really possible to hive off elements which are genuinely process-driven and isolate them from the inherent politicism of planning?
  • A viable alternative? There continues to be much nervousness around the public disclosure of viability information in planning applications. Might private sector processors be favoured on the basis that they may not be subject to the requirements of the FOIA and EIR regimes?
  • It may shift the traditional focus within local authorities away from development control and towards strategic plan-making. Not necessarily a bad thing, particularly with other measures in the Bill designed to incentivise plan-making.
  • Has the government side-stepped the issue of resourcing planning departments? It is committed to encouraging innovation and driving down costs, so will this address long-standing resourcing issues? It also has to be seen alongside the recent Ministerial announcement that the Government will consult on allowing “well-performing planning departments” to increase their fees in line with inflation.