Julian Seymour, Director of Snapdragon Consulting, reviews the latest proposed changes to Planning Policy from DCLG.

Fresh from ravaging the NHS, the Government has fired the starting gun on the privatisation of the planning system. Under the guise of trying to speed up the planning process, developers in a few pilot areas will be able to choose who processes their planning application. But is this wise? And should developers take up the option?

We all know that the Tories love to privatise things (although Labour under Blair and Brown had a pretty good run at it as well). The railways, the energy industry, coal –  there isn’t much left to privatise. But at last they have worked out how they can privatise planning, under the guise of creating more efficiency and speeding up planning applications, an issue that applicants often bemoan.

Their latest wheeze is to allow “competing authorities” and “government approved organisations” to process planning applications outside their own jurisdiction. This will supposedly create an incentive for local planning departments to speed up their consideration of applications or risk them being processed elsewhere. Further, different providers will be able to set their own fees.

Although notionally other “competing” local authorities will be able to process applications, it is unclear whether any but the most forward thinking would be willing to gear up their planning departments without contracts in place to cater for additional applications particularly for a pilot programme. This just leaves the private sector to seize the opportunity. . .

To give the new process at least some grounding (veneer?) in the local community, the decisions will still be made by the local planning authority via their planning committee, “a pillar of democracy”. Unless, of course, they are made by the Inspector, but we’ll come back to that.

But will it work?

Well, it might seem attractive to some developers to get a “competing authority” to process their application, particularly where that authority (or government approved provider) gains a reputation as taking a positive view towards development and has a reputation for speed. Or it might suit developers trying to get consent for Greenfield sites outside the boundaries of tightly drawn authorities like Luton or Oxford which are struggling to make their own housing numbers within their own borders.

Those developers tempted to employ competing authorities or other agencies may pause to consider what happens when they get to the local committee. A ruffled, hostile committee, guided by put out officers, will have to make a decision on an application they haven’t had a chance to scrutinise and generally steer. Not to mention ward councillors who may have been briefed by applicants and communities but who have not been able to discuss the detail and process with their own officers. I leave the outcome to your imagination.

It does open other doors for those progressing an appeal strategy, where that positive recommendation is all important. No doubt some approved providers will become the developer’s choice for these kinds of applications. A positive recommendation made by planners who don’t know the application area, can then be judged by an Inspector based in Bristol.

Given that there seems to be a strong view in DCLG that actually planning isn’t to blame for the slow pace of development, rather that developers who don’t develop quickly are at fault, why would the Conservatives push it through? Could this be the central government’s last resort? Is it a way to sideline local politics, particularly in the Tory shires in the South East, an issue that slows down or stymies so many applications? If it is, it may well just force more decisions to the Planning Inspectorate – Localism at its best.

For more information contact Julian Seymour on 0203 176 4555