HL Deb 09 March 2005 vol 670 cc815-8

7.53 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee] [11th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in summary, the regulations implement increases in the level of fees for applications for planning permission and deemed planning permission which, if approved by the House, will come into effect on 1 April this year.

The fee increases proposed in the regulations are in line with the long-standing government policy that the overall income generated by planning application fees should cover the estimated costs incurred in handling those applications.

The last time that there was a general increase in fees was in 2002 and before that in 1997. The 2002 increase followed a study commissioned by the then Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. That study identified a 14 per cent increase as the minimum necessary increase based on the information of costs available at that time.

Following that, my department instituted a comprehensive survey of planning costs in all local authorities in England. We concluded that the annual cost of the planning system is around £204 million higher than previous research had shown. The difference was due to the failure of earlier studies to identify and include all overhead costs. The 2003 research found that fees would need to increase by an average 39 per cent in order to achieve near full cost recovery. Somewhat surprisingly, my department consulted on a fee increase of 17 per cent in 2004. Many people said, "That's not enough", and, therefore, we decided to re-consult in December on proposals to increase fees to near cost recovery.

The Government therefore propose to increase fees by approximately 39 per cent, so that in aggregate across England, the income generated by planning application fees should better reflect the estimated costs incurred by local planning authorities.

Increases will be across the board with proportionately higher increases for larger developments, where the planning fee is furthest from the cost of handling the application. We do not believe that these increases will act as a deterrent to development, as planning fees are a small proportion of the development costs.

The increase in fees proposed in the draft regulations now before the House keeps fees at the lower end of the scale at modest levels, while introducing proportionately higher fees for the larger applications. I must stress that we expect local authorities to match this increase with a better service on handling planning applications. The fee increases should help to sustain improvements in performance of local authorities and complement the positive effects of the planning delivery grant. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee] [11th Report from the Merits Committee].(Lord Rooker.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that short, brief and succinct explanation of these regulations. I am delighted to say that we have no objection to them. Option C, the one that introduces the largest percentage increase, must be the right response. Having looked at the replies to the consultation on the website, it is clear that all local authorities have, surprisingly, agreed that that is the way forward.

I wish to raise only two small points. First, it was notable that part of the consultation referred to mobile telephone masts and a decision as to whether there should be higher fees for them. Can the Minister confirm that, in light of the fact that it has been decided not to do anything about that at the moment, it will be kept under review, as there seems to be more public activity as a result of such applications than there has been in the past?

Secondly, there is a suggestion, which I suspect is right, that the cost of e-applications is going down, due to the reduction in work involved. I hope that if that is right, local authorities will be able to keep the difference between the lower cost and the fee that they would normally automatically receive.

This will perhaps give local authorities an opportunity to increase their staff resources and that will have an implication for the quicker turnaround of planning applications. So if the Minister can deal with my point about mobile masts, we are happy to support the regulations.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, we are pleased to support the regulations. They appear to have been widely consulted upon and there appears to be an alarming degree of consensus that it is the right way forward. Given the shortfall in fee income, compared to local authority expenditure on planning applications, it is better to increase the fees than it is for the burden to fall on the local council tax payer, which is currently the case.

We also welcome the emphasis on the increase towards major planning applications, which also involve local authorities in a substantial expenditure, particularly when proposals are controversial or highly technical in nature. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, we share the concern about mobile telephone mast applications because, particularly for small rural district councils, their costs can be extremely high if they are controversial and if there has been substantial consultation and to-ing and fro-ing.

But cost recovery has to work both ways and it is only right that applicants of all sorts should have a clear understanding of the level of service they should expect from their planning authority. As the Minister said, some research has taken place into the establishment of cost standards and indicators. Can the Minister say whether there are proposals for such costs and the fee levels that flow from them to be revised on a regular basis, rather than ad hoc, as appears to have been the case until now?

Finally, do the Government have any plans to deal with those instances where statutory consultees fail to respond in time in some cases, which can freeze the application process? It is the planning authority rather than the consultees who carry liability for the slow processing of the application. I know that that is a concern, particularly with the Highways Agency. But, apart from those points, we are happy to support the regulations.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful for the responses of the two noble Baronesses. On the issue of mobile phone masts, I can only say that at present we do not have enough information to justify a larger increase. We would have to subject this area to further evidence-gathering and research. But I fully take on board the point that an application for a mast—that is, for those that require planning permission; not all do, which in some ways is part of the argument—can be very costly to small local authorities.

Frankly, this will not be the last increase in fees. Obviously, since 1997 there will have been two five-year gaps, and there is a large increase this time because of the under-collection on the previous occasion with overheads not having been taken into account.

On the second point regarding e-applications, one can always argue that in the long term digital technology prices will come down. This is not intended to be a profit-generating exercise. The fees are now being set for the foreseeable future. Obviously, when they are reviewed, that will be done on the same basis as these fees for cost-recovery purposes and, if the costs have gone down, clearly that will have to be reflected. As I said, the fees are not applied for profit-making purposes, and it is therefore only legitimate that we should try to recover the costs—that is, the real costs, or as near as we can get to them.

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. When she sat down, I did not make a note of the last point that she raised.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I am happy to help out the Minister. It concerned the question of statutory consultees, such as the Highways Agency.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall pursue that point. Frankly, as I know from my discussions in the department, these days there is more pressure on the statutory authorities to co-operate and to realise that they are part of government in the widest sense. They are not a law unto themselves and they are expected to co-operate in partnership with local authorities and the other bodies because there are statutory consultees. We expect them to perform efficiently, which means delivering answers in good time and not causing greater costs to be incurred. So, if and when there are complaints from local authorities, we in the ODPM would like to know about them. Such complaints affect performance, on which the authorities are measured, and it would be very unfair if they received a lower performance assessment because of other bodies. Therefore, we need to ensure that the buck stops in the right place. Having said that, I am very grateful for the responses of the two noble Baronesses.

On Question, Motion agreed to.