HL Deb 26 January 1987 vol 483 cc1179-82

7.3 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th December be approved. [5th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, which concerns amending regulations that are laid under the powers contained in Section 87 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. We have also taken the opportunity to make a small number of relatively minor changes to the fees scheme itself, in the light of our further experience of its operation.

It remains our view that we should take no drastic action to correct the shortfall on the planned 50 per cent. recovery but rather continue on the basis of staged increases. Given that the level of inflation has been progressively reduced, the increases proposed in this order will give a greater element of progress towards the 50 per cent. objective.

Under the arrangements comprised within this order an application for the erection of dwellinghouses, for example, will therefore be charged at £60 per dwellinghouse in the case of a full application, or an application for the approval of details, and £60 per 0.1 hectare of site area in the case of an outline application. In each case the figure will rise to £66 on and after 1st July 1987. The householder who wishes to extend his house will—assuming he requires specific planning permission—need to pay a fee of £30, and later £33, instead of £27. Applications for the erection of non-residential buildings, such as factories or offices, will incur a fee of £60, and later £66, per 75 square metres of floor space, and so on throughout the fees scale. The maximum fee at the cut-off point in each fee category with a sliding scale will be increased pro rata.

Turning to the other changes proposed in the amending regulations, they are required to make the scheme work in a fairer and more equitable manner. The first—and perhaps most substantive—change concerns applications for onshore oil and natural gas exploration, which are presently charged for at the rate of £27 for each 0.1 hectare of site area, subject to a maximum charge of £270. However, these applications often involve difficult technical and environmental issues, and the Association of County Councils have pressed for a substantial increase in fees for such applications, on the grounds that the income they receive leaves their members with much too high a share of the handling costs.

We therefore propose that a more realistic provision be made for oil and gas exploration applications. We propose a fee—at the first of the new rates—of £60 per 0.1 hectare of site area, subject to a maximum of £4,500 (the prescribed maximum for minerals operations generally). In practice we understand that few oil and gas exploration sites exceed one hectare in area, so that the normal maximum would be around £600; but there would be (as is not the case at present) provision for a higher charge in respect of larger sites. Following the second increase, the unit charge would rise to £66, and the maximum to £4,950.

The second change also concerns a minerals matter, but goes in the opposite direction by proposing a new category of exemption from fees in respect of applications for the consolidation of existing mineral working permissions. Mineral operators would often be willing to make an application for the consolidation of existing permissions, but are inhibited from doing so because the application would attract a fee of up to the maximum prescribed. This is at present £4,050, and it will be increased ultimately to £4,950, as I have said.

The proposal that such applications should be exempted from the payment of a fee is strongly supported by the CBI and the local authority associations, and we are happy to agree to it in the interests of securing comprehensive and up-to-date controls over existing mineral workings. Applications for new or extended workings will of course continue to be charged fees in the normal way.

The remaining changes we propose to make to the regulations are minor technical matters, and amount to little more than a fine-tuning of the existing fees scheme. One I should like to mention is that we are—perhaps better late than never—making specific provision for a local planning authority to refund the fee paid where an application is found to be invalid. Those who need to make use of the development control system should, we believe, continue to make a contribution towards its cost. These contributions help to reduce public expenditure because both rates and rate support grant can be reduced accordingly, and thus the burden of taxation on the community as a whole may be correspondingly reduced.

It remains our view that, even after taking into account the increases proposed in the amending regulations before the House, and the longer-term aim of moving towards a 50 per cent. development control costs recovery objective, fees for planning applications will continue to be modest—in some instances virtually negligible—in relation to the overall costs of the development which are the subject of the application. I commend the present amending regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th December be approved. [5th Report from the Joint Committee. ]—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I should like first of all to thank the Minister for his introductory remarks on this draft statutory instrument and for the explanations that he has given on some of the complicated matters involved. I am aware of the convention that abounds in the House on the question of statutory instruments and I certainly will not overstep the mark on that score. However, I should like to ask the Minister one or two questions.

The Minister and other noble Lords may recall that in 1983 there was no general welcome at all for these charges. Certainly in the world in which I lived, in those days if anything, there was opposition to these charges. The opposition was, first, on the general principle that some people felt that the introduction of yet another charge for local government services which ought to be provided by a local authority without charge was a retrograde step. We were always concerned about the deemed applications and there has not been general acceptance yet of that new animal that was increased then—deemed application.

At this moment we are certainly concerned about any increase in cost to home buyers, who would be the people applying for planning permission for extensions and for back additions because they have a family and the old house which they are buying is not big enough. Any extra cost on the people in those families is to be deprecated. It could be a disincentive to some people who might otherwise wish to improve a semi-derelict property. Therefore we want to register a criticism of the general costs in that respect.

I should like to ask the noble Lord one or two questions that he may be able to answer now. Has he any breakdown of the income derived generally from these charges? Has he any statistics on the administrative costs? I assume that the local authorities still collect these charges and administer them. Are the administrative charges calculated or charged against revenue before the abatement for any rate support grant is made by the Treasury?

Those are the few questions I should like to ask. I hope that the noble Lord can give me a reply before we finally pass this statutory instrument.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, from these Benches we also are grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has explained this instrument to us. We are not opposed to the increased payments or the exemptions and remissions. They are in line with what was always uderstood were to be the phased increases, and this is one of them. I understand that the instrument has had a more or less non-controversial acceptance in another place. All parties were agreed on it. I hope that that applies tonight.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the charging of fees for planning applications has been the law of the land since 1980. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, says, that there was no general welcome in 1983. But since 1983, with the operation of the scheme, there has been no general consternation at it either. Therefore, I suggest that the principle of the fee scheme is past history.

The noble Lord asked what was going on at the moment. The latest figures of expenditure and fee income available to us, £106.5 million and £37.4 million respectively in 1985/86, show that we are still at 35 per cent. a fair way from the cost recovery objective which I told the House last year was what we all intended.

So far as rate support grant goes this will make no difference. The important point is that local authorities will get the money from whichever source. In other words, we are not in the Government being as hard hearted as I suspect the noble Lord was suggesting, in that we would reduce our rate support grant money first and expect the fees to come in afterwards. There is a pari passu situation.

I was asked about fees for house extensions. Many such matters would be exempt from the fee as permitted development under the general development order. But inevitably there will be some fees which will accrue in this situation. It has been the experience, as I understand it, of local planning authorities that officers of the various committees up and down the country have been asked for advice before the application has been put in.

The noble Lord also asked about invalidity. A planning application can be invalid for a variety of reasons, of which I shall name just two: that it is not in the proper form of application, or that there has been a failure to advertise to neighbours if that is required under that sort of application. It seems unfair to us, and indeed to the local planning authorities themselves, that fees should be charged in such circumstances.

So far as deemed applications are concerned, where enforcement action is taken and the developer appeals to my right honourable friend against the enforcement notice, he can grant planning permission for that particular development. It is only right that the fee should then be payable as it would have been if a proper planning application had been made in the first place.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her general welcome of this order. I think in answering the points raised by the noble Lord, I have probably answered the one point she raised. Unless any noble Lord has further questions, I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.16 until 8 p.m.]