Do revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework relating to Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) represent an application fee increase in all but name?
The answer appears to be a qualified 'yes' for large or complex applications. But concerns around the appropriateness, transparency and consistency of charging some applicants more for a 'better' or 'enhanced' service are likely to be brought into the spotlight.
What Are PPAs and why are they used?
Planning Practice Guidance describes PPAs as being project management tools, which can be used to agree timescales, actions and resources for handling particular applications.
PPAs may also be used to supplant the statutory time limit for determining a planning application with a longer time limit, provided that the applicant and local planning authority agree.
A search of local planning authority websites reveals no shortage of benefits for those applicants willing to enter in to a PPA. Examples range from securing a dedicated planning officer, the better overall management of advice and a structured and predictable approach, all the way through to securing the highest quality and best outcomes for the planning application and minimising the risks associated with the planning process.
Of course, those 'benefits' come at a cost and the sums paid pursuant to PPAs can be considerable. For example, Westminster City Council charges £31,000 for PPAs relating to 'major' proposals and Maidstone charges £14,000 for 'extra-large' developments.
What does the revised NPPF say?
The National Planning Policy Framework, published in March 2012, provided that applicants and local planning authorities should consider the potential of entering into PPAs where this might achieve a faster and more effective application process.
That same wording appears in the revised National Planning Policy Framework published in July 2018, but is joined by an additional sentence suggesting that PPAs are likely to be needed for applications that are particularly large or complex to determine (emphasis added).
What are the implications?
Whilst PPAs remain voluntary, the revised National Planning Policy Framework clearly changes the emphasis from PPAs being something to be considered, to being likely to be needed for certain types of applications.
That raises the questions: why are PPAs likely to be needed, and what does that say about the planning system more generally?
The ability to secure the recovery of additional costs is not given by the revised National Planning Policy Framework, or the Planning Practice Guidance, as one of the main purposes of PPAs, but the potential to offer local planning authorities a much needed income stream is clearly one of the driving forces behind their promotion.
By accepting the likely need for PPAs, in relation to large or complex applications, there is an inevitable tension with the Planning Practice Guidance to the extent that it suggests that application fees broadly reflects the work a local planning authority has to do to process the application.
Whilst that same tension may not extend to all stages of the application process, namely pre-application and post-approval matters not covered by the application or other fees, the likely need for PPAs more than hints at the existence of a funding gap between the level of the application fee and the actually incurred cost of processing large or complex applications between submission and determination.
However, some caution needs to be exercised before PPAs are held up as being the solution. The Planning Practice Guidance provides that local planning authorities may make a charge for the administrative work involved in agreeing and implementing a PPA, but only to the extent that this goes beyond an authority’s statutory responsibilities. That supposedly avoids duplicating the planning application fee, but in reality there is a blurring of the line between those actions which are discretionary and those which are part of a statutory responsibility. It would be a difficult task, for instance, to identify why taking a structured and predictable approach to determining an application would go beyond being part of a local planning authority's statutory duties.
In any event, if the suggestion is that applicants need to pay more for a better service or to address a funding gap in relation to large or complex applications, there are strong reasons for suggesting that PPAs are not necessarily the best vehicle for achieving that:
- Appropriateness – An applicant may legitimately expect that, having paid an application fee, the local planning authority would determine the application to agreed timescales and with appropriate resources. Applicants may also reasonably expect a structured and predictable approach to application processing, whether they enter into a PPA or not. Attempting to draw a line around certain additional discretionary services and charging additional sums in relation to them, gives rise to a needlessly complex and relatively artificial means of funding planning services.
- Transparency – The Planning Practice Guidance encourages parties to a PPA to make the existence and content of a PPA publicly available, so that the agreed process and timescale are transparent. However, there is no requirement for them do to so, and a lack of transparency is likely to fuel the perception that PPAs may be used to secure more favourable outcomes.
- Consistency – There is an argument for saying that any funding gap relating to large or complex applications should be addressed through the Fees Regulations, which should secure a commensurate fee in relation to them. That would have the advantage of being consistently applied across all applications (subject to any applicable exemptions or concessions). There is a danger that PPAs come to be seen as a prerequisite to good application processing, and that a two tier planning system develops as a result, whether in perception or reality.
The use of PPAs should not be seen as a shortcut to a well-funded planning system. PPAs are no substitute for a fair setting of planning application fees, and the transparency and consistency that funding planning services in that way brings.
The flexibility offered by PPAs does little to offset issues around appropriateness, transparency and consistency.
The recognition in the revised National Planning Policy Framework that PPAs are likely to be needed for applications that are particularly large or complex, could arguably be seen as more of an indictment of the sufficiency of the Fees Regulations, in so far as they relate to those applications, rather than as a solution to the funding of planning services more generally.