Cambridge and South Cambs ratepayers subsidising large developments?

Summary:

On why ministers need to remove (or at least relax) the restrictions on local council planning fees for medium and large developments.

I pulled this from a recent ministerial speech.

It was from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at the annual conference of the Local Government Association, the organisation that represents local councils across England. (Minus a handful of non-conformists!)

You can read the transcript of the speech by the Secretary of State here. Essentially there’s going to be a new green paper on planning.

“What’s a green paper?”

In central government, there are two types of policy paper: green papers, and white papers. Green papers are discussion documents. This is where the government of the day raises issues to do with a specific policy area and invites comments from anyone (though in practice it is interested in influential people and organisations) on scoping the problem out and/or how to respond to it.

White papers are government policy documents that are a statement of what a government intends to do about an issue or policy area. Quite often these will include announcements of any new legislation it intends to table before Parliament. The publication of announcements tend to be big occasions for a government because it gives the impression of a government doing something and being in control of a policy area. They can also act as a sort of comfort blanket  – easy to refer back to repeatedly because of the significant amount of research that has gone into creating them. Individual pieces of research often costing £tens of thousands will go into individual chapters and on impact assessments.

I think it’s a shame that more of these research papers are not more widely publicised because they get into the real detail of issues and cut out much of the party-political bluster. Interestingly, this is also where MPs who might come across as buffoons on political telly can show themselves to be far more well informed on a specific issue, and may sometimes seem at odds with the party-political line to take from their party whip.

“What is an ‘accelerated Green Paper’?”

It’s like a normal green paper but one where ministers are panicking because they’ve spent far too much time and far too many resources being distracted by something else and in the meantime, the monster has grown.

“What did the Secretary of State have to say?”

This”

“The Green Paper, will invite proposals to pilot new approaches to meeting the costs of the planning service where this improves performance, including whether local authorities could recover a greater proportion of these costs.

If such reforms were then introduced, local authorities would be expected to invest the additional revenue in their planning services and demonstrate measurable improvements within their performance – not just in terms of speed but very firmly also in terms of quality.”

“Which means?”

‘Local councils will have to raise revenue from somewhere other than central government, council taxes and business rates. Any ideas, chaps?’

So I asked two of our local councils (Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire – who now run a joint planning service) whether the income from planning fees covered their costs in terms of running it.

With thanks to Hannah at South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the moment the planning service needs to be subsidised by the local council tax & business rate payer.

“So that means the big developers are being subsidised?”

In effect, yes. They are not paying for the full cost of the planning service that they use.

“Ouch – that hurts – especially given the controversial nature of some of the planning applications and developments we’ve seen and sat in on over the past decade or so!”

Exactly. I can see the merit of local council tax and business rate payers working on small developments not being hit by the full cost, but for £multi-million developments where the beneficiaries are large institutions or corporations, or wealthy individuals domiciled elsewhere, I can’t see why they should be subsidised – especially given the extra resources that their developments inevitably take up.

Furthermore, I also think there’s merit in local councils running a function that helps local residents and community groups comment on planning applications. It may sound like this is helping nimbys (Not In My Back Yard types!) block planning applications, but I reckon it would have the net effect of reducing the amount of time and resources spent on handling such objections, increase the public’s understanding of the planning system, and encourage more responsible developers to engage with local communities at a much earlier stage so as to design out any contentious issues at a very early stage.

“Contentious issues?”

Take a proposed development on a fairly large open undeveloped site that backs onto an existing row of houses. When deciding where to place the new houses, the existing residents are more than likely to put in an objection where new homes right next to their property boundary overlooks onto a back garden or directly into a property. A privacy issue. In which case at a very early stage coming to an agreement on having say some allotments bordering onto the existing property boundary might be a better solution. This is what happened in one development in Cambridge a few years ago. The same number of homes were built, it was just that at design stage they were located on alternative parts of the site. Far better to do that now than to get to the planning permission stage and having to pay extra for your consultants to fight an organised campaign against your development.

Local planning and property professionals are not happy with the local authority planning system either

I found myself sitting in on a meeting with members of Labour’s planning commission recently with developers even though I had only asked to be with the community representatives. (Hence not live-reporting because that felt like bad form). The conclusion I came away with on both sessions is having some joint workshops between local organisations such as the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations and RIBA Cambridge so that both sides can get a stronger understanding of where the other is coming from, and perhaps to agree some protocols on developments on when and how prospective developers should engage with local community groups.

But as things stand, the planning function of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire District Councils is not in a great place.

…and as you can see, it’s an issue that I’ve firmly placed at the door of ministers to resolve – as they are the ones with the powers to do so.

 

 

 

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