Competition and Determination
On the 18th February 2016 DCLG began a technical consultation into the implementation of proposed changes to the planning system by the Housing and Planning Bill. Whilst the consultation proposes several key changes to the planning system this blog focuses on one, namely the introduction of competition in the determination of planning applications. The overarching principle of the proposed change is clear - the Government is keen to improve the performance of planning departments to better the supply of housing in an attempt to meet housing delivery targets.
The Housing and Planning Bill recognises that some local authorities have outsourced and worked in partnership with private companies. In Greater Manchester this includes Urban Vision at Salford. The Bill proposes to go further than outsourcing and partnership working by introducing companies. It sets out that competition will be introduced in some local authority areas as part of a trial, which will allow alternative providers to process planning applications and make a recommendation to Local Planning Authorities, which will then make a decision on the application.
This approach has a number of risks that will have implications for Local Planning Authorities, consultants and developers.
An important principle of the current process of determining planning applications is that it is democratic. Throughout the process case officers must consult with the public. By introducing competition into the planning system it could be harder to understand for those with little or no knowledge of the system. Currently applications are available on one online portal for each local authority. Introducing competition may create multiple portals, reducing transparency for the public.
The changes may have unintended implications. Case officers must liaise with statutory consultees, a number of which are within local authorities. In most instances the relationships between case officers and consultees allows for quick resolutions to problems in the planning process. By introducing external competition there may be less internal pressure to respond. At present there is no suggestion that there will be implications for local authorities if applications processed by providers are delayed. It is difficult to see how Local Planning Authorities could be penalised by the performance of providers and how performance will be measured in areas with competition.
The current consultation sets out that providers will be able to negotiate S.106 agreements. It is difficult to foresee how third parties will negotiate on the behalf of local authorities without significant involvement from LPA officers. The proposal also has potential implications for the Judicial Review process. By privatising the determination of planning applications, decisions would be based on recommendations by providers. By splitting the assessment process and making decisions Judicial Review becomes further complicated.
However competition is introduced, it must be regulated and monitored to ensure that decisions are fair and legal to maintain the integrity of the decision making process. The introduction of competition has the potential to speed up the determination process for applicants and may provide a more efficient system, but that is far from guaranteed. It requires careful consideration to ensure the planning system remains democratic and decisions are fair and legal.
The technical consultation of the Housing and Planning Bill runs to the 15th April 2016. Representations can be made online at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/implementation-of-planning-changes-technical-consultation.