HL Deb 29 November 1990 vol 523 cc1110-3

6.27 p.m.

Baroness Blatch rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th October be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1989–90].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I understand that it will be convenient to discuss the Scottish regulations at the same time.

These two sets of regulations, which have already been considered in another place, are laid under the powers respectively in Section 303 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and Section 87 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. They amend regulations introduced in April this year for Scotland and, for England and Wales, regulations approved by this House and another place some 20 months ago which came into effect in mid-March 1989.

The main change introduced by these 1990 regulations is to provide for a general increase in the level of fees for planning applications. We have also taken the opportunity to make some very minor amendments to clarify the text of the regulations. Fees for planning applications were first introduced in 1981. Since then they have represented a contribution to the costs which the local planning authority incur in handling planning applications and reaching a decision. Applicants are charged according to the nature of the development proposed, and its size where that is relevant.

During the debates on the 1985 and 1987 amending regulations the Government's stated objective was that fees for planning applications should move to a level where they recovered about 50 per cent. of local authorities' development control costs. The 1989 regulations provided for an increase in fees of 15 per cent. across the board and the Scottish regulations introduced earlier this year made a 20 per cent. increase. Allowing for those increases, and for the steadily increasing volume of planning applications received by local authorities in recent years, we estimate that last year, 1989–90, fees recovered approximately 52 per cent. of local authorities' costs in England, and a rather lower proportion north of the Border.

The two sets of regulations now before the House provide for an across-the-board increase in fees of around 20 per cent. Subject to approval, the new fees scale should come into operation next month. The overall effect of the new fees will be to restore cost recovery to around the 50 per cent. level in England and Wales and to raise it to approaching that level in Scotland.

The House will be aware that, as proposed in the consultation paper Efficient Planning, published last year, the Government also intend that planning application fees should eventually cover 100 per cent. of local authorities' development control costs. The Minister for Housing and Planning announced in another place on 25th July that we intend to invite your Lordships' House and another place to approve further regulations over the next several years to raise fees progressively in order to achieve 100 per cent. recovery. That is also the target in Scotland.

In Efficient Planning the Government also proposed to simplify the fee regulations in England and Wales, which we believe are excessively complicated. We intend to consult publicly about this before too long.

Under the present proposals in England and Wales the basic units of fees will rise from £76 to £92, and from £38 to £46. A full application to build dwellinghouses, for example, will be subject to a charge of £92 per dwellinghouse. An outline application will be charged £92 per 0.1 hectare of site area.

The householders who wishes to extend his house will—assuming he has to obtain specific planning permission—have to pay a fee of £46, instead of £38. Applications to erect non-residential buildings, such as offices or factories, will incur a fee of £92 instead of £76, per 75 square metres of floorspace, and so on throughout the fees scale. The maximum fee in each category with a sliding scale will also be increased pro rata by around 20 per cent. This means that, for example, the maximum fee for a factory or office development will rise from £3,800 to £4,600, and the maximum fee for an application to win or work minerals from £5,700 to £6,900. Slightly lower rates of fee levels will apply in Scotland.

As I have indicated, the remaining changes we propose to make to the regulations are minor, and amount to little more than clarifying the text of the existing regulations in the light of our further experience of their operation. The Government believe that it is a sound principle that those who use and potentially benefit from specific administrative processes should meet their cost. I believe there can be no doubt that, even after taking into account the increase in fees proposed in the regulations before the House, fees for planning applications will in general continue to be modest in relations to the overall cost of the development which is the subject of the application. I commend the 1990 regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th October be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 1989–90].—(Baroness Blatch.)

6.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her exposition of these two regulations. They are not enormously complicated. The issue behind them is still considerably controversial. It is no secret that when fees for planning applications were first introduced in 1981 we on these Benches were not in favour of them. However, a great many things have changed since then, notably the squeeze on local authority expenditure and the introduction of the poll tax. In the light of the experience of government control of local authority finances (because that is the word we must use) over the past eight or nine years, our opposition to fees has diminished to the point of being eliminated.

In fact, when the Government state that it is their intention to increase the fee level to cover 100 per cent. of local authority costs over a period of years, I would go so far as to say that we are not proposing to object to that change. However, there are difficulties which should not be passed over in silence. Even with these regulations there have been protests which have no doubt gone directly to the Government from such bodies as the Federation of Master Builders which fears that an increase of 20 per cent. in application fees in another burden for the building and construction industry at a time when it is being hit harder by recession than at almost any time I can remember.

We must take these concerns seriously and recognise that when the construction industry is in the parlous state which now affects it, there is a case for tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. We must also consider whether it is right to continue to increase fees when the planning system itself is still subject to legal constraints which make it more expensive than it should otherwise be. However, I am pleased that these regulations are coming forward in the week when we have been considering the Planning and Compensation Bill which the Minister will acknowledge we broadly welcome.

The improvements especially in the enforcement proceedings proposed in that Bill will go some way towards increasing the efficiency of the planning system. Those improvements should enable local planning authorities to cut some costs and therefore decrease the figure which will be arrived at ultimately when 100 per cent. of the costs of applications is covered by fees. These are difficult matters. They are not issues about which anyone can be wholehearted. If the Government take our approval for these increases in planning application fees as general approval for a move towards a fee-based local authority service, they would be quite wrong. That is not our intention. It is not something that we wish to see. The universal provision of most local authority services is a prize for which we would fight hard. Planning application fees, coming as they do from those who have specific economic reasons for using local authority time, are a different matter. In this case we think it is proper that these regulations should proceed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his comments and his conversion to the recovery of costs scheme. I note his reluctance and the reasons why he takes that view. The noble Lord spoke about the parlous state of the construction industry and the difficulties that it is having at this time. We are talking about the costs being met only when application is being submitted. We are talking about the part of the construction industry which is still in work and managing to submit applications.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I must say that is a bit rich! One of the reasons why there will be fewer applications for planning permission is that the total costs of construction are greater. Those costs include, even though to a small extent, the costs of planning applications. The Minister cannot get away with a policy of divide and rule concerning the construction industry.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord has said. I was saying that costs are only awarded when an application is made. We are talking about that part of the construction industry which is still submitting applications. We all wish that the construction industry was more buoyant at the moment. The noble Lord mentioned the degrees by which we are increasing the fees and that it was done specifically in order to help the construction industry.

I agree with the point he made that there is downward pressure on the local authorities to improve the planning system. The Planning and Compensation Bill will help a little in that respect. The more efficient the planning system itself becomes the less money that we shall need to recover from those who present planning applications. The Government are always ready to receive any suggestions for improvements to the fees scheme although we would prefer to avoid making it more complex. As I have said, we are considering ways of simplifying the scheme. I hope that sensible ideas to improve the fees scheme will continue to come to us from all those with an interest in the planning system.

On Question, Motion agreed to.