Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document
Meeting of the Executive held on 10/07/2007
Charging for Planning Services
WAVERLEY BOROUGH COUNCIL
EXECUTIVE - 10TH JULY 2007
CHARGING FOR PLANNING SERVICES
[Wards Affected: All]
Summary and purpose
The Modernising Planning Special Interest Group on 28th February 2007 debated the principle of charging for discretionary planning services and this report reflects its conclusions. This report should be read in the context of the discussion on the future shape of the planning service (the previous report on the agenda refers (Appendix J.1)).
The increasing pressure on planning workloads, together with the shift in its emphasis within local government, is placing strains on the delivery of services to meet expectations. In the context of limited Council resources this paper explains how charging those customers directly receiving the service, rather than being subsidised by the general council taxpayer, might generate additional income.
At the same time, the proper resourcing of discretionary services will assist the Council to maintain its corporate objectives of maintaining Development Control Performance and improving planning services.
This report was considered by the previous administration in March 2007 when the decision was taken to refer the report to the Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee to be considered in overview mode. The Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee discussed the report at its meeting on 19th June and Members’ comments are set out at the end of this report.
The planning service is at the heart of protecting and enhancing the quality of life within the Borough. It is recognised as a high priority within the Corporate Plan in delivering wider community benefits. In particular the delivery of key infrastructure projects through S106 contributions is important.
There are no direct ICT implications arising from this report. ICT will continue to be a key delivery tool for the service.
Resource and legal implications
The resource implications are explained in the body of the report.
There may be legal implications if the service begins to fail in meeting reasonable expectations of its customers. For example, the Ombudsman has already expressed a growing concern about the length of time the Council is taking to respond to complaints. If the situation is not resolved then there will be a risk of maladministration occurring with damaging implications for the service. The liability to the Council is likely to be limited to the extent of the fee being paid by the customer.
1. The Local Government Act 2003 introduced powers for Councils that achieve a good best value rating to make charges for discretionary services. The background to this was explained in the report to the Executive on 5th September 2006 in relation to Planning Delivery Agreements.
2. It is considered that charges could be introduced for the following work areas:
Consideration of amended plans/non-material amendments.
Planning history research
Monitoring and management of S106 agreements
Charging for Planning Advice
3. Experience has shown that private sector interests are willing to pay for pre-application advice. However, in those authorities that have introduced such a charging system, the private sector is clear that they are willing to pay for the advice as long as they have access to council officers at the appropriate level to give a considered and balanced response. Equally, the LPAs have found that developers need to present proposals at the pre-application stage that are sufficiently detailed to allow meaningful discussion of the planning issues to take place.
4. This section sets out the areas where the Council could consider charging for elements of the planning service with an indication of a range of charges that could be considered. The ODPM paper "General Power for Best Value Authorities to Charge for Discretionary Services - Guidance on the Power in the Local Government Act 2003" sets out the basic rules for such charges the principal one being that such charges are limited to cost recovery.
5. Introducing charges would enhance the planning service and have the following advantages:
The customer would pay for the service, not the Council Taxpayer;
The customer would be paying for a quality of service that would otherwise be impossible to provide;
By covering costs in one area allow released resources to fund other planning activity;
The Planning Service could re-focus on customer service rather than regulatory control.
6. Alternatively, the disadvantages could be:
The customer could choose not to seek assistance and problems may arise later which could have been avoided;
Income, after a drop in take up, may not be sufficient to fund service improvements;
Resources may not be sufficient to cope with changed working practices; and/or
Initial demand may outstrip resources.
7. Any charging system must be based on covering costs and should not be profit-making. Furthermore it would be unlawful to implement a charging system that discriminated against non-Waverley residents but it would be acceptable to have a system that recognised disadvantaged groups such as disabled people. Where existing services are charged for, payment in advance or on application is the usual practice. This should be the case as it avoids extra costs associated with debt recovery should payment in arrears not be made.
8. This would be a new regime for the Council and requires careful consideration and consultation prior to implementation, and review thereafter. The basic principles of any charging scheme should be that it is open, fair and consistent. It is not proposed to make charges for Parish Councils other than S106 agreements, although they are unlikely to arise. An explanation of the issues surrounding the introduction of charges for such services is outlined below.
9. “Pre-application advisory service” is the term used to describe how councils engage with applicants before the submission of a planning application to ensure that all parties understand what is expected of them. The government is encouraging councils to speed up the planning process by engaging with applicants early. Many councils already have effective practices in place at the pre-application stage. Waverley commits to a pre-application advisory service as part of its Planning Customer Charter but is struggling to provide this consistently.
10. Recent research undertaken by the Audit Commission has revealed a high degree of stakeholder consensus around the importance of pre-application processes since it allows issues to be identified, enabling parties to address these at an early stage in the design process. This can avoid abortive use of time and money. It is also central to the Council’s shaping agenda.
11. Pre-application processes are a valuable tool to improve the effectiveness of the planning process. An effective pre-application advisory service is one which:
properly records pre-application discussions;
does not prevent developers from attaching some weight to pre-application discussions, albeit that advice is always informal pending the formal consideration of any subsequent planning application;
resources the service adequately;
expects developers to establish a timeline for dealing with any eventual planning application (a planning delivery agreement); and
reserves the right not to enter into negotiation during the application stage if the application differs materially from the scheme discussed at the pre-application stage.
12. The Audit Commission has highlighted that private sector stakeholders and others identified that the lack of councillor involvement at the pre-application stage can be a drawback in the system. Waverley has addressed this issue through the Development Control Consultative Forums that are now gaining national recognition.
13. It is recommended that a protocol should be prepared providing a detailed explanation of the material needed to accompany any pre-application enquiry, and what the Council will provide in response, for the benefit of users and the Council alike. The Modernising Planning SIG discussed a draft protocol that will need further work should the Executive agree the charging proposal. This could be introduced on a trial basis and refined through experience.
14. At the present time, Waverley offers a free pre-application advice service but that is becoming increasingly difficult to deliver and meet user expectations due to the high workloads. Two elements of that service nevertheless appear to have generated significant customer satisfaction. These are the Planning Surgery run for the benefit of householder applications and the Development Control Consultative Forums that address “Major” development proposals. However, the service is currently struggling to deliver effective pre application advice to applicants for the development proposals that sit between these extremes. This is an area that attracts many customer complaints.
15. The two primary ways of delivering the service are through appointments or by correspondence. Some advice is sought over the telephone but callers are normally advised to put their request in writing.
16. Cases range from extensions to houses through to housing estates and commercial developments. Any charging system needs to recognise the different resource implications between the types of proposed development.
17. The simplest approach would be to charge on a flat rate basis related to officer grade. Alternatively a percentage of the planning application fee, for example a 25% charge, could be levied. The difficulty with this approach would be with setting a charge for larger scale development. Thus, a fee structure based on an hourly rate would be easier to understand by prospective applicants, easier to implement, and is preferable. Surrey Heath currently charge £150 per hour for a meeting with a principal officer and feedback suggests that the industry is willing to pay such a charge for quality advice. This cost would not only reflect the time of the meeting, but any preparation work and follow-up work.
18. The Modernising Planning SIG considered that the proposed fee would necessarily represent the true costs of dealing with Major applications and suggested that this be increased. Officers have therefore suggested that this be increased to £300 from £150. Where additional input is required form other professions such as Environmental Health Officers the fee would be doubled. In addition to this, Members are reminded that where a developer wishes to enter into a Planning Delivery Agreement then the charge would be negotiated in relation to the specifics of that particular project. For example, Cherokee the Cranleigh Brick and Tile applicant agreed to fund a pre application process up to £65,000. Similar agreements are in place for the proposed new Dunsfold settlement upon which work has started.
19. It is suggested that if a site visit is required, an additional £50 per site is charged.
20. Officers suggested that an additional charge of £500 could be charged for a Development Control Consultative Forum. Given the organisation involved, the feedback from key consultees, the community and members it is considered this still represents good value for money. However, like all of these services it would not be desirable to make a charge that is prohibitive and the value of this initiative is lost. The Modernising Planning SIG however, concluded that a charge should be levied to cover the actual costs of the event, which is likely to be higher than the £500 suggested. Officers hope to be able to report further on this matter at the meeting.
21. The planning surgery is currently focused on the householder enquiries. It is an informal system in the form of a drop-in surgery but hosted by a Principal Officer and the Manager of the Neighbourhood Team. If charging was to be introduced for this service it is suggested that it should be fairly modest at only £20 to £30 a visit. No charge is suggested for general enquires over the counter at the locality offices and planning reception that generally can be easily answered. The Modernising Planning SIG concluded with some reservations that it would be reasonable to charge a fee of £30 to reflect this service and to accommodate the demands of agents seeking to access this service.
Carrying out compliance checks
22. This is where owners or prospective purchasers request that the Planning Authority confirms that planning conditions have been correctly discharged. Alternatively, a property owner can engage a Surveyor to carry out a compliance check on their behalf (the indications are that this service could be subject to VAT).
23. It is suggested a flat rate fee of £50 be charged for this service based on charges being levied by other Local Authorities. Where a request is made to confirm whether a development has been completed in accordance with approved plans and conditions this would normally trigger an application for a Lawful Development Certificate, which would attract a fee in its own right.
Consideration of amended plans
24. After planning permission or any other consent has been granted, it is the Council’s practice to accept and consider minor (non-material) amendments to approved plans. Strictly speaking such a process is not provided for in the Planning Acts but it is general custom and practice throughout the country for genuinely minor amendments. If an amended plan procedure is not operated then a planning application would have to be submitted and the usual fee paid, unless the application was received within 12 months of the original decision. It is suggested that a flat rate fee of £50 be introduced for householder developments and £100 for other developments
25. One anomaly would be in respect of listed building consent applications, which do not attract an application fee. Until such time as Government introduces a charge for such applications it would be hard to justify a charge for considering listed building consent amended plans.
Planning history research
26. This is where prospective purchasers enquire of Development Control as to what the planning history is of a particular site or group of sites. Prospective users of this service are advised that they can undertake the research of planning records themselves at no cost. Alternatively the Council can do it for them at a cost. The council already levies a charge for copies of planning decisions and other documents but a charge of £50 per hour could be considered.
27. Councils are now permitted to make a charge to developers for the monitoring of S106 agreements in terms of their implementation of obligations. This is normally a flat rate charge for the life of the obligation and would go towards someone responsible for monitoring the implementation of obligations and the receipt and expenditure of contributions. Based on discussions with other authorities in the Surrey Collaboration Project on S106 agreements, a 5% charge of the value of the benefits is recommended and this would be used to fund a post to manage this important resource.
Income and Expenditure
28. The introduction of charges for services as outlined above brings with it the expectation of prompt, accurate service delivery. Customers would naturally be concerned that if payment for a service is introduced it should be promptly delivered. This will require the re-focus of aspects of the Development Control function on customer service rather than a regulatory tradition. This is a challenge that can best be met by re-investing any income generated in these measures in service improvement. For example it will be necessary to look at the prospect of dedicated pre-application enquiry staff and the availability of accommodation for pre-application meetings.
29. The charging for such services has professional liability insurance implications. However, these will be covered by the insurances the Council already has without an increase in premium.
30. Table 1 below sets out a possible income stream from the services that could be charged for in the future. However there is a significant health warning with this budget forecast.
Table 1 Possible Income from Charges and likely expenditure.
No of S106 agreements (2007/8) and Not Major developments.
Management and monitoring fee
No of S106 agreements (2007/8) Major developments.
Management and monitoring fee major applications.
Pre application advice Minor Applications
No of cases
Cost per case
Pre application advice Major Applications
No of cases
Cost per case
No of surgeries
No of DCCF events
Cost per DCCF
No of compliance letters
Compliance letter fixed charge
No of history searches
Cost per search
Income from history
No of Post decision Minor amendments
Income from minor amendments
DC Technician/ Support
Tree Admin officer
Total costs 3 Planning Assist
Senior Planner (pt Pre Apps)
Additional Expenditure required to manage workloads and enhance services.
31. The figures are based on assumptions and attitudes of the development industry and information from other authorities. Experience elsewhere may not translate to Waverley. There is uncertainty in the elasticity in demand / price relationship. There is uncertainty in long-term development demands. There is no current track record to support income assumptions.
32. Members will note that income potentially could generate £149,500 a year. However there will be bound to be slippage and set up costs assuming S106 policy documents will not be in place until July this year and there is the need to recruit staff before service improvements can be delivered. However the models suggest that the majority of additional costs can be covered by the additional income.
33. The proposals present a dilemma. Enhanced services cannot be delivered without additional staff resource and staff resources cannot be delivered without necessary budget provision.
34. It is therefore recommended that a phased approach be taken to the enhancement of the service to reduce the risks to the Council by ensuring an early income stream. Income for the monitoring of S106 agreements can be collected from July 2007 and this amounts to £12,000 in 2007/8.
35. The redeployment of the Senior Planning Officer returning from maternity leave would cost £20,000 in 2007/8 and this post could commence the pre application service and generate an income stream relatively quickly and avoid recruitment costs. This is estimated to provide income of £20,000 accounting for capacity and should be self financing.
36. The key resources to put in place are two Planning Officers in the Major Sites team to facilitate Principal Officers to adopt a “consultant role”. This would cost £62,000.
37. The creation of a career grade posts at Planning Assistant level, as explained in the previous report, would have an impact of £2,000 in 2007/8.
38. It is therefore recommended that the Council agree a supplementary estimate up to £52,000 (£62,000 + £2,000 - £12,000) to initiate the improvements of the service in 2007/08. It is anticipated the income stream could be developed throughout the year to be self sufficient in 2008/9.
Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee
39. The Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee considered the report on 19th June.
40. There was a discussion about the level of charge and the need for it to be proportionate with the application. Members also felt it was important to put constraints on officers’ time spent in discussions with developers. The Committee agreed to:
Suggest that the Officers look at the possibility of either a time-based fee system for larger applications, or an upper staff time limit for the proposed fixed fees; and
Suggest the relationship between minor application and major application fees be reviewed to see if they are in proportion.
41. The Modernising Planning SIG concluded that the Council should introduce charging for planning advice and recommended that a protocol be published clearly setting out the parameters of the service. This will be to the benefit of the users of the service and accord with best practice
42. It also recommended that the services that attract a charge should be closely monitored and a report reviewing performance be prepared after the first year’s operation.
It is recommended that
1. charging for planning services should be introduced in principle;
2. officers be instructed to work up in detail a charging scheme including pre-application protocols, standards and systems;
3. the detailed scheme be subject to a consultation exercise with customers;
4. officers introduce the charging scheme in liaison with the portfolio holder for planning as soon as practical; and
5. should any significant budget implications arise from the consultation process, officers should refer those matters to the Executive.
CIPFA – A Practical Guide to Local Authorities on discretionary income generation.
Planning Advisory Service and ATLAS – Pilot Planning Delivery Agreements
ODPM – “An Overview of the Evaluation of Planning Standards Authorities 2004-05”
ODPM -- Formulation of Guidance on Access to Planning Information and Charging for copies of documents.
ODPM—General power for Best Value Authorities to Charge for discretionary Services-Guidance on the Local Government Act 2003.