HL Deb 10 November 1983 vol 444 cc981-9

4.46 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th July 1983 be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords I beg to move that the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) Regulations 1983, which were laid before this House on 25th July, be approved. I trust that it will be convenient to your Lordships to discuss at the same time the Scottish Motion, concerning the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Scotland) Regulations 1983 in the name of my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin, which were laid before this House on 27th October.

These two sets of regulations, which are laid under powers contained in Section 87 of the Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980, provide for a number of changes to the fees scheme which was first introduced in April 1981 and amended in June 1982. They update, supersede and consolidate both the original regulations and the amending regulations of 1982. The changes which the new regulations introduce follow the review of the workings of the planning fees scheme which my noble friend Lord Avon announced when speaking to last year's regulations.

I think it would probably he useful to give the House a brief outline—and I promise that it will be very brief—of the way in which the fees scheme works, in order to put the changes into context. Any applicant who seeks planning permission must, when making his application, pay a fee to the local planning authority. The fee is a contribution to the costs of handling an application. The fee is prescribed by the regulations and it cannot be waived or refunded. There are however concessions to deal with specific cases where normal fees would be unreasonable. Subject to that, applications are charged according to the factors which determine handling costs, the kind of development proposed and its size where this is relevant. The scheme is designed to achieve: a fair balance between the categories of development; fees which broadly reflect handling costs; no discouragement of sensible planning applications; and simplicity of operation and clarity about the fee payable.

In our review, we invited comments on how the scheme was working from over 140 organisations. But we made clear that the principle of charging for applications was not under review. Over 180 bodies or individuals replied. In the main, local planning authorities preferred simplicity and were against major changes. Developers and interest groups argued, understandably perhaps, for more concessions and thus for more complexity.

We have tried to balance these conflicting demands and have looked very carefully at constructive suggestions made to us. There was however no general call for a radical restructuring. The overall shape and the degree of detail in the scheme is broadly right, we found, and it is working reasonably well. The scheme is now well established and does not, as some feared, seem to impose any great burden upon either applicants or planning authorities. After her supplementary question to me last week—actually, my Lords, I think that we can forget this part of my speech. I was going to refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. However, since I am digressing somewhat from my speech I should like to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to the Front Bench to assist us in our debates on these particularly technical subjects.

One of the results has been more informal discussion of applications before they are submitted formally, and planning officers often help applicants to get proposals right first time so that the fee is not spent on an unsuccessful application. This may have contributed to the speeding up of the handling of applications which I reported to the House last week.

The most important change in the draft regulation is an increase of 7 per cent. in the overall level of fees. As last year, this increase does no more than take account of inflation over the period since the previous increase in June 1982. Fees will continue to offset something like 40 per cent. of the total estimated expenditure on development control, which is currently of the order of £70 million to £75 million per annum in England and Wales.

Depending on the future levels of applications—and of course on their average size—the yield from fees at the new rate in a full year is estimated at between £28 million and £30 million. Our best view of next year's likely income will of course be reflected in the calculation of rate support grant for next year. I am pleased to say that the initial problem of a shortfall in fee income in comparison to rate support grant assumptions, something which noble Lords discussed at some length during last year's debate, has not arisen again this year. The prediction of fee income for 1982–83 of some £27 million, which my noble friend Lord Avon made during that debate, has, on our best present estimate, proved to be an accurate one.

The remaining changes aim at refining the scheme. Last year my noble friend undertook to consider what more might be done to meet the problems of glasshouse growers. Even with last year's discount for agricultural buildings, the fee for the typical one acre or more glasshouse has been considered by many in the industry to be excessive and unjustified in terms of local authority handling costs. We were persuaded by these arguments, and I am therefore pleased to announce a special new category of fee for glasshouses—including the polythene tunnels which are often used. The fee will be a flat rate £280. Glasshouses below 465 square metres in area which need specific planning permission will continue to be exempt from fee. As a one-time member of the horticultural industry myself, I am sure that this concession will be welcomed by commercial horticulturists everywhere.

Another very desirable change concerns works to adapt a disabled person's dwellinghouse. At present, there is a limited exemption on works for a property occupied by a disabled person. We have extended this exemption to applications where the disabled person has not taken up residence in the house concerned, thus covering cases where alterations are needed before he or she can live there. There is also an entirely new exemption for works to improve disabled people's access to buildings in public use, such as shops and cinemas. We hope that these concessions will help further to improve the position of disabled people in the community.

We have also been concerned to remove anomalies and difficulties in the fees scheme itself. There are a number of small changes to this end, and in view of their highly technical nature I will confine myself to a summary of their main features rather than attempt a lengthy exposition.

We propose an exemption for an applicant who applies to amend his plans after they have been approved within one year of receiving planning permission. We propose to halve the normal rates of fee for applications made by parish councils, to reflect their special position as a tier of local government. Where development straddles a planning authority boundary, we propose a lower maximum fee than would normally arise, to avoid penalising applicants for accidents of geography.

We propose to clarify the present regulations for advertisement applications by specifying that the fiat-rate fee (which will be £47) applies to the whole site covered by the application, to avoid the problems of defining the "site" which have arisen in the past. Where the outdoor storage of minerals and spoil needs planning permission, we propose a sliding scale of fees to replace the current flat rate of £44, since these applications mean a good deal of work for local planning authorities.

We propose a flat-rate fee of £47 for the renewal of temporary planning permissions for temporary buildings instead of the existing exemption, unless the application is made within 12 months of the original permission. And, finally, we propose to simplify the rules governing the fee payable for seeking approval of the details of a development which has already received outline planning permission.

I now turn to the position in Scotland. Consultations on the operation of the fees system there gave rise to conclusions which were very similar to those of the review to which I have already referred. Thus the Scottish regulations are much the same as those for England and Wales, with some very minor differences to reflect different circumstances north of the border.

In both countries there were of course a good many other suggestions for changing the fees scheme. Some of these seemed at first to be attractive, but on closer examination turned out not to fit in with one or more of our guiding principles. A sliding scale for changes of use, for example, was one such idea, which we concluded was simply not practicable.

A concession for charities and voluntary bodies was another possibility which we looked at with particular care, together with a concession for applications made by small firms. We believe however that the nature of the application, not the applicant, is what should count in the calculation of fees.

In reviewing the scheme and preparing the detailed changes in these new draft regulations we have not been concerned to maximise fee income. We have instead looked with an open mind at every representation and suggestion made to us, and we will continue to do so as we monitor the scheme in the future. Our aim will be to maintain the right balance between fairness to the applicant on the one hand and administrative simplicity on the other, while continuing to safeguard the overall aims of the scheme. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25th July 1983 be approved.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

4.57 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I should like to begin by acknowledging with appreciation the remarks of welcome made by the noble Lord to me for the post that I now hold for the Opposition. It is an honourable post and one that I am proud to hold. I very much look forward to taking part in debates on matters which relate to the environment. I am almost tempted to say that I have been here before. I have not been at this particular spot before, but I have certainly been here before with regard to the issues which we are now debating, because I served as a Member of the Standing Committee of another place on the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill, and I also raised this particular point on the Floor of the House of Commons when the matter arose in 1981 and 1982. Of course, I have had the opportunity of reading the exchanges in another place.

I certainly appreciate the care and the attention which the Minister has given to these regulations. He has given a very full explanation in detail, something which I certainly do not propose to do at this stage. In another place my colleagues raised a fundamental difference as to why fees ought to be charged at all because Members of the Opposition take the view that planning is a community obligation. This is a system that has served this country very well for 150 years. The purpose of planning restrictions is to protect the community generally. The planning system is not a service for individual applicants, but is designed to benefit the community as a whole.

The Minister alluded more than once to the basic raison d'être for the action of the Government, which is to reduce central Government expenditure. In effect, at the end of the day, when one looks at the level of charges, what is happening is that those who apply for planning applications are paying for a service which hitherto had been paid for either by central Government or partly by central Government and partly by local government in the rate support grant. The Minister must be aware from following the procedures of colleagues in other departments that this is an insidious situation.

Once one begins to adopt the policy that a service is provided by the community for which there is a need and demand and for which people will have to pay if they need the service—and the situation here is that people who need to build, to extend, or to change the use of the building need that permission and, therefore, the Government have said that if there is a need they are to pay towards it—where will this Government stop in that procedure? We all know that where other services have been provided as a right—for instance, meals on wheels or home helps—the Government have decided to charge for them. They have decided to make charges in this particular field. What other council services, which hitherto have been provided to the community as a basic right, will the Government examine? The House and the country ought to be well aware that in this particular instance the Government are yet again shifting the burden of a need from the central Exchequer on to either the local exchequer or the individuals.

I was interested in the words of the noble Lord. I am reassured that the difficulty in the earlier years has been overcome. Without looking at the statistics, I can remember the authorities getting hot under the collar when the rate support grant negotiations took place in the early years because of an assumption that the charges would bring in a certain figure. I think that the figure of £38 million was estimated to be brought in, yet at the end of the first year only £25 million was brought in. As a consequence there were £13 million which the authorities had then to find from some other source of income, or some other charge.

Is the Minister saying that it has been possible to work out a procedure based upon experience which indicates that when this is a matter of the rate support grant discussions, the estimate which will be taken into account as income from fee charges is, as near as makes no difference, equal? In other words, there will not be a shortfall whereby the ratepayers will have to make up the difference? If that is what the Minister is saying, then that as a major point of change will be very welcome indeed.

The Minister indicated that a fundamental review had taken place, consultations had taken place, observations had been made, and he was satisfied that although the general principle of charging was not at issue, some tidying up had taken place. So far as the AMA is concerned that, while there may have been changes which removed anomalies, the changing of the regulations to remove the anomalies has simply meant that there has been an increase in the complexities.

May I give to the House and the Minister the illustration which the AMA have given to us: Examples of the additional complexity introduced by the new regulations include the amendment to enable applications submitted by parish and community councils to be charged at a special half rate and the introduction of a new 'free go' for minor amendments to proposals for which planning permission was granted within the previous 12 months". The Minister gave the House a careful explanation that these were benefits. The AMA tell us: Changes such as these will inevitably create more confusion on the part of applicants and increase the burden on local planning authority staff at a time when councils are being urged to determine applications more speedily and reduce current expenditure". The Minister knows as well as I do that when the AMA speak so positively they can only do so because that is the advice given to them by the planning officers and departments whose views have been canvassed. If this is what local authority planning departments are saying, what is the Minister doing either to refute or rebut, or to try to take into account the problems which the planning departments see?

In a previous manifestation I served on the London Borough of Enfield council. From time to time I made contact with the officers to ask for their views on legislation going before Parliament. On this occasion I sought the views of the deputy planning officer of the London Borough of Enfield, Mr. Bill Issitt, who is a fair-minded man. I am glad to tell the Minister that after three years he finds that the problems that they anticipated have not arisen as they expected at the time, and they are satisfied that the system is working well, provided that any shortfall in rates or income which they were worried about is actually made up.

Would the Minister care to comment on these statistics? In the year January to December 1980, which was the year before the regulations came into effect, there were 2,400 applications to carry out development of all sorts, and 40 applications for formal determinations. The Minister appreciates that the formal determination request is one whereby an applicant wants to know before he submits an application whether in actual fact it needs a planning application at all. In the year before there were only 40. In the year January to December 1981 there were 1,970 applications to carry out development of all sorts, and 600 applications for formal determinations.

We can understand a shortfall from 2,400 to 1,970 applications, because a number of people would decide that they were not going to apply if in actual fact they needed to pay a fee. But the astounding increase from 40 requests for determinations to 600 requests in the London Borough of Enfield indicates that a great deal of council officers' time is being taken up by applicants who say, "On the margin". The Minister is aware of the changes in the general development order, the increase from 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. in permitted development, and a range of other things. It is quite clear that before spending £20, £22, £24, £40, £44 or £47, people are going to say, "Before I spend the money I am going to take up the time of the council officer to say, is it worth it?".

Not only were the figures like that, but they went from 40 determinations in the year 1980 to 600 in 1981 and 840 in 1982. If the Enfield experience is a common experience with other authorities will the Minister appreciate that, although one gets the figures right in respect of the cost of the applications, it still means that by virtue of this system there is a burden placed upon council departments where they have to service situations of that kind?

Accepting that we are opposed to the principle of charging, suppose that instead of having a system which takes £20, to £22, to £24, the planning officer has said, as a suggestion, that it would be much better if in fact the increases went from £20 to £25, and £25 to £30. He is not asking that every year there would be an increase of £5, but he is asking for ease of understanding. Forty-four pounds was an awkward figure; £47 is an equally awkward figure. If one could say that the increases were going to be for two years and they went from £40 to £45, and there might be two more years when it went from £45 to £50, that might be easier to administer.

So far as we on this side of the House are concerned we wonder why the Minister decides on 7 per cent. Am I to understand the Minister to say that that was the best estimate for equalising the inflation rate over the past year or the next year? If 7 per cent. was simply shot at a figure that could be borne, then we think there ought to be a better means of deciding on the uplift. So far as Members on this side of the House are concerned, we still repeat that we are opposed to the principle, but we are satisfied that in the generality local authorities are having to live with a situation which is costing them a considerable amount of money.

5.8 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I am fortunate enough to be the first to be able to congratulate the noble Lord who has just sat down on taking up his duties on the Opposition Front Bench. We certainly look forward to hearing from him quite a lot in the future, as no doubt we shall.

These regulations are a considerable improvement. For the second time this afternoon I should like to congratulate the Government on the way in which they have dealt with this matter, on the whole. My colleagues were not in agreement with the idea of charging, any more than were the Opposition Front Bench. However, since we have this charging system I think that the Government have gone a long way to try to make it work and to make it suit the position.

One particular problem which they have not taken up, or at least not in the regulations—and I was not certain whether or not the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was referring to this in his opening speech—is the problem of fees for change of use applications. The fee for these is a flat fee. It does not seem in any way to affect the complexity of the various matters with which the authorities have to deal, It may deal with anything from the change of use of a small shop to the conversion of an enormous factory into a do-it-yourself store. A scale of charges would in this case surely be more equitable, and could be introduced without making the scheme unnecessarily complicated.

I realise that, as has just been said, there is a problem here of balancing fairness with simplicity, and obviously the answers to the particular problems which arise will not come down on the same side in any particular case. I should have thought that in this particular matter there was a little too much simplicity and a little too little fairness. Perhaps the Government will have another look at this before they change the rates again, as no doubt they will in due course. This is a highly complex matter. I do not think that this is the time to go into it in very great detail. The Government quite clearly are trying to get this right and have gone a long way towards doing so.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, before the Minister replies, I should like to thank him and the Government for their statement about the regulations for the disabled. I would say that they do need studying, and would thank him for what he has said.

5.12 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords and to the noble Baroness who have spoken today. I must say that it was an exciting opportunity for me to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, from the position he now occupies. I must say that if it is his normal wont to answer his own questions, then I shall have a very much easier life than I expected when I read of his previous experience in another place.

I am sorry to see that some noble Lords—the noble Lord opposite notwithstanding—are not yet reconciled to the principle of fees. As I said at the beginning, the charging of fees for planning applications is not in doubt. It is the law of the land and has been so since 1980. The debate today, as the noble Lord recognised, has nothing to do with changing that law but to do with the level of fees and the detailed provisions of the fees scheme.

We have today had an interesting short debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, has said, these are highly technical matters of planning law and procedure. If I do not get all the answers right, perhaps I may be allowed to write to noble Lords. Many of the points that were raised were given very' careful consideration during our review. I have explained why the new fees scheme takes the form that we propose and the reason why many of the interesting ideas and suggestions have not stood up to the scrutiny that we gave them. We are very much concerned to identify any further improvements in the scheme and to test them against the scheme's underlying principles. It was a totally new experience to evolve this particular scheme. It was bound to take a little time to get right. I am glad to say that we are making very great progress. I hope that ideas will continue to come to us from all those with an interest in the planning system.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, disliked not only the principle of the scheme (which, as I have said, we are not discussing) but in a sense the rationale behind the drawing up of the scheme—which I found extremely difficult because it is Government policy, and has been so since 1979, that it is right that users of any particular service, whether provided by local or central Government, should contribute in some way towards the cost incurred. In this case, as I have said, the sums of £70 million to £75 million are not inconsiderable.

Secondly, the fees are at a modest level, well short of processing costs, and there is no evidence that they act as a deterrent to development. Indeed, the noble Lord quoted figures which said that development was definitely going on. I found those figures extremely interesting. I would suggest that the noble Lord has a word with his noble friend Lady Birk, who thinks it an excellent idea that an informal approach should be made to the planning officer before the application is submitted. I can tell him that, in my view, at least, this is the reason why the formal application figures have gone up so substantially.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I would agree that the informal approach is an excellent idea. But the financial consequence and the costs of the council in providing officers for the informal consultation are a different thing. If a person is hesitant about whether he is going to need planning application or not, or, even more insidiously, he may want to avoid having to apply at all, then, of course, an hour of the council officer's time will satisfy him that he should or should not apply. At the end of the day, if he decides that he is not going to apply, there is no statistic appearing anywhere, except for the hour of the council officer's time, which has to be paid for.

While on my feet, may I say to the Minister that if the philosophy is that anyone who uses a service should be expected to pay partly towards it, what about a service like housing? If an applicant for housing is going to use that service, is he expected to have to pay partly towards it? There is also the case of the applicant for the use of education facilities; that is, the child who is going to school from 5 to 11. If the philosophy is, in generality, that because you are going to use a service you are expected to pay for it, that is a dangerous precedent.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, what I was trying to point out, in answer to the second part of the noble Lord's intervention, was that all these things are being looked at and nothing can be regarded as sacrosanct. That is as far as I was going at that moment. As far as the first part of his intervention goes, he has forgotten what I might call the opportunity cost—which is that if the application finally goes through and is a partially-charged-for application, there will be some saving in time. This will be balanced to some extent—although I take the noble Lord's point that it may well be that we have not got it right—by the fact that a preliminary investigation causes the potential applicant not to apply.

So far as the £13 million deficit is concerned, as I have said, this has been sorted out; but I am quite confident that should there be any small shortfall, or indeed any excess, this will be taken into account in the next year's rate support grant figure. The noble Lord spoke about the added complexities of parish councils. I fail to understand why it should be difficult to charge half the fee. It is just another stroke on a piece of paper. I would say that the Government had no such representations from the Association of District Councils. So far as the "free go" is concerned, in the new regulations this follows the same rules as in the existing ones. The noble Lord suggested block leaps (if I might so describe them) in fees from 75 to 80 or whatever it happens to be. I can just imagine the remarks that he would make were we to do it in a period of low inflation. He would wrap the argument round our necks in no time at all; so that I do not terribly approve of that suggestion.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, spoke about charges for changes of use. I think there is no reasonable basis on which to devise a sliding scale because the individual changes are inevitably of a very disparate nature. There is no way in which we can focus upon particular points on a scale on which to slide. I will look into what the noble Lord has said and give him a more considered reply.

On behalf of my department and the Scottish Office, I welcome all sensible proposals for making the regulations better and fairer. While I hope it will not be necessary to promote new regulations in this House too often, I can undertake that all suggestions will be fairly considered. Before I depart with this set of orders, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that the 7 per cent. about which he asked is our best estimate of inflation over the 17 months between the two sets of orders.

On Question, Motion agreed to.