Planners as rent collectors

Stephen Byfield, managing director of communications consultant the PPS Group, argues that, in the drive to raise money, councils are using planning departments to extort money from developers

Years ago I wrote a great deal about the problems of securing planning permission. But in the past few years government reforms have had an effect. Most councils now have a local plan in place or in preparation and arbitrary and political decisions on applications are fewer than they were. Consequently, we live in a period of greater certainty on planning decisions. Fewer housebuilders cite planning as a primary threat to their ability to build.

But problems still remain. Nowadays, though, they are more to do with lack of performance than lack of certainty. Years of austerity have had a slow and detrimental impact on planning departments as layers of personnel have been hollowed out.

Sadly the primary response of many local authorities to cost cutting has not been to seek efficiencies but to change the primary role of their planning departments from delivering sensible planning outcomes to collecting cash for the local council.

We are all now used to paying local authorities for the services that we have already paid for once through local and national taxation. We rarely question charges for initial planning advice, application fees and planning policy agreements. And, in a world where local services are squeezed, I suppose such charges are fair enough.

But some of the demands are becoming unjustifiable. One of my clients had a scheme go to committee recently and agreed to conditions that saw him pay nearly £100,000 to the local authority for the loss of amenity resulting from the removal of two trees. This is rent seeking – plain and simple. The client only agreed to it because the payment was dwarfed by the cost of redesigning the building to accommodate the trees but everyone involved in the conversation knew that what was really happening was that the council was extorting money from the applicant.

I worry about the disillusionment that will be felt when the next generation of planners emerge from their degree courses keen to shape the built environment only to find out that they are really rent collectors practising legalised extortion.

But the worse part of this is that extra charges do not result in a better service. At least when people paid protection money to the Mafia, they got protection. When planners extort our money it is hypothecated into the general pot paying for local services. Councils seem happy for developers to pay ever-rising costs and receive ever-falling service levels.

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