PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c

DRAFT TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING (FEES FOR APPLICATIONS AND DEEMED APPLICATIONS) (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 1986

Wednesday 21 January 1987

LONDON

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Crouch

Bruinvels, Mr. Peter (Leicester, East)

Bulmer, Mr. Esmond (Wyre Forest)

Caborn, Mr. Richard (Sheffield, Central)

Conlan, Mr. Bernard (Gateshead, East)

Cox, Mr. Tom (Tooting)

Duffy, Mr. A. E. P. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey, (Hampstead and Highgate)

Fraser, Mr. John (Norwood)

Freeson, Mr. Reg (Brent East)

Lawrence, Mr. Ivan (Burton)

Meadowcroft, Mr. Michael (Leeds, West)

Norris, Mr. Steve (Oxford, East)

Rathbone, Mr. Tim (Lewes)

Rhodes James, Mr. Robert (Cambridge)

Ryder, Mr. Richard (Mid-Norfolk)

Sims, Mr. Roger (Chislehurst)

Skeet, Sir Trevor (Bedfordshire, North)

Waldegrave, Mr. William (Minister for Environment,Country and Planning)

Miss P. A. Helme, Committee Clerk

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3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c Wednesday 21 January 1987

[MR DAVID CROUCH in the Chair]

Draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) Regulations 1986

10.30 am

The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Planning (Mr. William Waldegrave): I beg to move That the Committee has considered the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) Regulations 1986. These amending regulations, which are laid under the powers contained in section 87 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, basically provide for two staged, general increases in the level of planning fees. We have taken the opportunity to make small changes to the fees scheme itself, in the light of our further experience and representations made to us. Planning fees are simply intended to represent a contribution from the applicant to the costs that the planning authority incurs in handling his application and reaching a decision. Applicants are, therefore, charged according to the nature of the development and its size, where that is relevant. The Committee will recall that, in the debates on the 1985 amending regulations, we stated our objective that fees should move to recover about 50 per cent of the costs. We thought that the system could be roughly divided: 50 per cent in general interest, which could be paid out of general rates and taxes, and the other half of the benefit to go to the applicant. In order to avoid a substantial "once for all"increase in 1985, it was proposed to proceed by stages. In fact, the 12.5 per cent increase in fees made by the 1985 regulations has been largely absorbed by increases in costs that have occurred since fees were increased 21 months earlier by the 1983 regulations. Moreover, 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 50 per cent costs recovery objective. Nonetheless, it remains our view that we should take no drastic action to correct the shortfall, but rather continue on the basis of staged increases. Given that the level of inflation has been progressively reduced, there should now be a slowdown in the increase of costs and greater progress towards the 50 per cent recovery objective. The amending regulations therefore provide, in the first instance, for an across-the-board increase in fees of 12.5 per cent, the same as that levied in the 1985 regulations. Although intended as the increase for 1986, it will not have escaped the Committee's attention that is now 1987. Therefore, the new fees cannot come into operation until February. We thought it right to bring forward the next general 4 increase, which we propose should be 10 per cent, to come into effect on 1 July 1987. The amending regulations include provisions for this second increase. These increases should go a good way towards achieving the 50 per cent costs recovery objective, the precise extent depending upon the levels of future inflation and economic activity. We shall review the position early in 1988, and put appropriate proposals before Parliament later that year. Under the present proposals the basic units of fees will rise from £53 first to £60 and later £66; and from £27 to £30 and then £33. An application for the erection of dwellinghouses for example will therefore be charged at £60 per dwelling-house 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 1 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, instead of £53—per 75 sq m 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, so that it remains at the same level relative to the basic fee concerned. The other changes proposed in the amending regulations are intended to make the scheme work in a fairer, more equitable manner. The first, and perhaps most interesting change, involves 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 applecations often involve difficult technical and environmental issues. The Association of County Councils has pressed for substantial increases in fees for such applications, on the ground that the income that it receives leaves its members with too high a share of the handling costs. The Government 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, which is the prescribed maximum for minerals operations. We understand that in practice few oil and gas exploration sites exceed 1 hectare, so the normal maximum would be around £600 However, there would be provision for a higher charge in respect of larger sites,which is not the case now. Following the 10 per cent second increase, the unit charge would rise to £66 and the maximum to £4,950. The second change also affects minerals operations, but in the opposite direction. It proposes a new category of exemption from fees for applications for the consolidation of existing mineral working permissions. Mineral operators are often willing to make an application for the consolidation of existing permissions, which brings old permissions under more modern conditions of consent, and has an environmental benefit. 5 They are inhibited from doing so because the application would attract a fee up to the prescribed maximum. That is now £4,050 and will be increased first to £4,500, and later to £4,950. The proposal that such applications should be exempted from the payment of a fee is strongly supported by the Confederation of British Industry and the local authority associations, and the Government are happy to agree to it to secure comprehensive and up-to-date controls over existing mineral workings. Applications for new or extended workings will continue to be charged fees in the normal way. We also propose the provision of a flat fee of £30 for applications that are made under section 31A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 to vary or revoke conditions attached to a planning permission. The regulations already provide for a similar fee in the comparable situation in which applications are made under section 32(1)(b) of the 1971 Act to retain buildings or works, or to continue a use of land, without complying with previously imposed conditions. The remaining changes that we propose to make to the regulations are minor, and amount to little more than fine-tuning of the existing scheme. We propose to exempt advertisement control applications from fees in certain defined circumstances. Further provision is also made for the refund by the Secretary of State, again in certain defined circumstances, of fees for applications that are deemed to be made to him. Specific provision is made for a local planning authority to refund the fee if an application is found to be invalid. Certain technical amendments, which reflect changes that are required as a result of the abolition of the Greater London council and the metropolitan county councils, have also been included. Those who need to make use of the development control system should continue to make a contribution towards its cost. Such contributions help to reduce public expenditure because both rates and rate support grant can be reduced accordingly, so 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 that are proposed in the amending regulations before the Committee and the longer term aim of seeking a 50 per cent recovery of development control costs, fees for planning applications will continue to be modest—in some instances negligible—in relation to the overall costs of the development, which are the subject of the application.

10.39 am

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West): I am grateful to the Minister for his lucid reading of his text. I do not disagree with sliding scales in the provision, but with the proposal in principle. I am the most recent of a distinguished line of Liberal Members who have made similar comments for seven years. I hope that hon. Members who have heard the comments previously will forgive me if a I repeat some of them. The principle of planning regulation is to safeguard the public interest. The state must hold the ring between competing interests. If we seek to impose 6 restrictions for the public good, it seems strange that we charge individuals for complying with regulations that have been placed upon them. We are imposing on an individual, regulations that may not be of most benefit to him but to those around him—the general public in the case of a large application, or neighbours in the case of a smaller application. In principle, it is wholly unfair to place a charge in such a blunt way on those seeking planning permission. I shall cite an example that I am sure is typical of many hon. Members' constituencies. Someone who owns a large old house in an urban area, and finds it impossible to maintain it or let it, might try to demolish it, or extend it, or develop the site in different ways. Due to the constraints or ordinary planning policy—whether because of the district plan or because of objections from residents in the neighbourhood—it may take several applications for planning permission before even outline permission is secured for the development that he wants. I do not doubt that the house owner gains from the regulations. However, the gain to the surrounding environment is far greater when the individual secures planning permission for a building that fits in with what people want in that area. I have been told by those who come to me for assistance and advice, that one planning application in my constituency has been subjected to 46 variations. There were not 46 separate applications but several variations on the one application. Each time the applicant seeks formal planning permission he must pay a fee. It is wholly unfair albeit legitimate, for a city council to say that it does not want the applicant to go ahead with plans—because it can foresee damage to the environment and other people in the area—and then penalise the applicant for taking away his plans to alter them to conform to what it wants. I oppose that principle. Even with the sliding scales, the imposition of a fee of up to about £5,000 is no deterrent to a corporation that is legitimately seeking to develop an inner city area for huge financial gain. However, to an individual trying to gain planning permission for a minor change to his home, the fee is an extra burden. He should not have to bear a burden that has been placed upon him by the state. I do not wish to labour the point but simply say that by not accepting the principle I mean that I do not wish the fees to increase. I recognise from what the Minister said, that the minor changes to the regulations improve them.

10.43 am

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst): The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) admitted that the applicant normally benefits to some degree. Therefore, it is reasonable for the applicant to make some contribution. He is not being asked to pay the full amount, but to make some contribution towards the cost of processing his planning application. 7 I was surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about a whole series of applications being made before approval was given to develop a site. I should have thought that anyone applying for planning permission would make a point of discussing his application with officials from the town planning department beforehand. He could then make as many informal amendments as necessary to ensure that the proposal that he formally submits has the blessing of the officials and is more likely to be passed. It should not normally be necessary to submit several applications.

Mr. Meadowcroft: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there is another point that perhaps I did not explain clearly enough? Professional planners quite rightly give their advice and people vary their plans accordingly. However the professional planners do not make the final decision: the elected members do that. The members take into account the views of local residents, and it is then that the applicant faces difficulties. The professional planners may not be able to foresee those difficulties because sometimes local opinion is inchoate until the application is submitted. The application that I gave in my example foundered for that reason.

Mr. Sims: I accept that completely. that is why the cost of the application should be met partly by the general fund and partly by the applicant. I have discussed briefly the implications of this order with officials from my local town planning department, and their verdict is that the free charging scheme is working well. However, under the 1983 regulations, paragraph 3 specifically states that "a fee shall be paid". It is not a permissive power, but a mandatory one. The local authority cannot choose whether to charge a fee. There is only one exception to that rule: paragraph 4 exempts properties where an alteration or extension is proposed to allow access for a disable person. Officials at my local town planning department are embarrassed at having to charge the full fee for organisations such as scouts, guides, play groups and various charitable bodies. Yet they have not alternative, and by July, when the regulations have gone through, that fee will be £66. Such bodies often have planning permission for a hut, perhaps for a few years. Although there is a good town planning reason for permission to be temporary, it means that the organisations soon have to reapply for renewal of permission to use a building which is already there. From July, it will cost them £66 for their pains. I can understand that the town planning officers feel uncomfortable at having to charge such organisations. We are all familiar with the work done in our constituencies by play groups, scouts and guides. Those organisations operate on a shoestring and it will be difficult for them to find that sort of money. There is a case, if not for exempting charitable bodies altogether, at least for including a provision to charge them half the fees. I appreciate that I cannot move any amendment to the regulations, Mr. Crouch, and so I shall not do so. 8 Although the order will go through in its present form, will my hon. Friend the Minister consider what I have said? Could an amendment to the general charging scheme be made simply by introducing a further regulation? If he agrees, I shall be pleased to expedite the passage of that regulation.

10.47 am

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate): I wish to make a brief intervention. As one who was in at the birth of the decision to charge for planning applications, I think that the scheme has worked remarkably well. I could respond to what was in effect the Second Reading speech of the original Bill made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), but I would not wish to weary the Committee. One merely has to read reports of past debates in Hansard to see the same arguments that he has adduced. It is right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) said, that those who benefit in the surrounding area should accept that the payment of up to half the costs should fall on a body other than the individual applying for planning permission. The hon. Member for Leeds, West raised the question of frequent planning applications. I do not accept that an objection does not surface until a formal application is put in. I served in local government for 25 years. If applications went in on an informal basis, councillors discussed with the officers those affecting their wards. They would know pretty well or they were not fit to be councillors. Major schemes do not go through such processes anyway. If I may put it that way, that is a green herring. Finally, I am delighted to see recognition that ignorance of the law will no longer be penalised, and that my hon. Friend is adding regulation 3(5) so that if an invalid application is received the fee will be refunded. It seems somewhat less than fair to take money from people for an application that was not valid. I welcome the proposals.

10.51 am

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood): I was about to say that I have no objections in principle to the instrument but I see that we voted against the original regulations in 1981. Indeed, if there were any principle that I would admit to it is that those who gain substantially as a result of receiving planning application ought to make contribution to the community rather than engage in their business at the expense of the community. I agree with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir Geoffrey Finsberg) about the power of a local authority to waive fees for a non-profit-making organisation such as a playgroup or charity. That is a perfectly reasonable power to invest in local authorities. Secondly, once someone starts paying for service he is entitled to receive service. I place on record that I think that the history of many local authorities of all political complexions in dealing with planning applications is disgraceful. Looking through the league table I 9 see that there is not much distinction between parties. Wandsworth's record in this case is rather worse than Lambeth's, and that is a turn of the tables when I think of some of the criticisms that have been made of my local authority. When I was chairman of the planning committee I got over the problem by having a sub-committee of one, and I used to decide all the planning applications once a week, until it was stopped as being ultra vires. However, it was a successful system. Had I got it wrong, I would have come under criticism and had to resign, but it worked. Thirdly, the bureaucracy will be reduced when there is a further general development order, which is what I think the Minister has in mind. Can the hon. Gentleman give us some idea of when the Government propose to put forward their final thoughts on that? It is relevant to deciding whether to put forward a planning application.

10.52 am

Mr. Waldegrave: I was not sure what my feelings were when the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) announced that he was last in the line of distinguished Liberal spokesmen. It rather cheered me up. The hon. Gentleman made a Second Reading speech. Over the years I have heard him being persuasive on a number of issues, and listening to him this morning I thought that I could so easily have heard him making a speech in exactly the opposite sense. He might have spoken of someone constantly bringing forward planning applications in the teeth of local community grassroots, Liberal-led, opposition in order to achieve private gain. He might have said, "What a disgrace that those very people who make the objections have to pay all the costs of the perpetual chipping away at the environment of Leeds." A speech could be made either way. I rather agree with the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), the spokesman for the real Opposition, that some share, 10 and perhaps even a greater share, should fall on those who receive the benefits. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir Geoffrey Finsberg) who, as he rightly says, was in at the birth of the regulations, for the welcome he gave to the instrument. He pointed out that we have put right the anomaly about invalid applications, which seemed rather unfair. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and the hon. Member for Norwood spoke of the power to waive in the case of charities. This was looked at in considerable detail before I was responsible for these matters. A whole range of problems of definition were encountered. The principle is that this is a charge, and that we should be trying to help charities by general tax and other methods to direct income to them rather than by exempting them from ranges of charges. I think that we still come down on that side of the argument, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman setting out more fully the arguments that were used at the time. He may wish to come back to me. The hon. Member for Norwood also asked about the GDO. We should reach a decision within the next four weeks or so—although I hope the hon. Member will not hold me exactly to that date. I am grateful for the general welcome given by the Committee to these changes. They are probably not the end of the story, because I do not think that we will quite reach the 50 per cent target, even after these two increases. Therefore, we may have to come back in 1988 for a final increase. But the measure will bring us near to out target, and it incorporate a number of welcome further changes.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) Regulations 1986.

Committee rose at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Crouch, Mr. David (Chairman)

Bulmer, Mr.

Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey

Fraser, Mr. John

Meadowcroft, Mr.

Norris, Mr.

Rhodes James, Mr.

Ryder, Mr.

Sims, Mr.

Skeet, Sir Trevor

Waldegrave, Mr.

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