Planning fees: DCLG needs to throw planners a bone

Earlier this month, Labour MP Huw Irranca-Davies accused the government of “dragging its feet” on reforms to dangerous dogs legislation. A consultation was launched in March 2010 by the former Labour administration. But more than 18 months after the consultation closed the coalition government has yet to state whether it intends to push ahead with the proposals. Writing in the Guardian on 14 February, Irranca-Davies said: “What do we want to see? Simple, 18 months after the consultation we need to see the government’s firm proposals. They’ve had more than enough time to consider the options.”

While the subject matter is very different, there are clear parallels with the Department for Communities and Local Government’s failure to state whether it intends to move forward with plans to allow local authorities to set their own planning fees. In November 2010, planning minister Greg Clark launched a consultation on plans to replace the current system – whereby fees are fixed by central government – with a system that would give local authorities the power to set their own fees to cover costs. At the time, the DCLG said that councils would be able to set their own fees from April 2011. However, 415 days have passed since the consultation ended and local authority planners are still no closer to knowing whether they will be handed the new powers. Planning reported at the beginning of this month that the delay is hampering councils as they draw up budgets for the 2012/13 financial year. This recent Planning Advisory Service discussion thread gives an indication of the frustration the delay is causing local authority planners. In a written Parliamentary answer yesterday, Clark said: “We are currently considering the responses to a consultation on this issue, and we will make a statement in due course.”

The fact that there are two clear examples here of the government dragging its heels over responding to consultations – and we’re sure there are others out there – prompted PlanningBlog to look up the rules that govern the consultation process. We thought we’d see whether there were any commitments that the government had flouted by failing to respond to the consultation on planning fees in a timely manner. The latest version of the government’s Code of Practice on Consultation was published in 2008 and the DCLG is bound by its terms. The code states that the instructions in the code of practice should “generally be regarded as binding”, but adds that it has no legal force. So has the DCLG adhered to the code of conduct?

PlanningBlog‘s view is that, despite the frustrating and lengthy delay, the DCLG largely adhered to the code of conduct in its handling of the planning fees consultation. However, there are a few areas where the department appears to have flouted the code:

– The code states that consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks, but DCLG’s planning fees consultation only lasted for eight weeks. According to the consultation document this was “because of the need to prepare secondary legislation, which will need to be debated and approved by Parliament before it can come into effect on 4 April 2011”

– The code states that consultation documents should, where possible, give an indication as to the likely timetable for further policy development. The consultation document fulfills this requirement – it clearly sets out the following timetable: “If accepted and approved by Parliament, the changes would be implemented from April 2011, with a six month transition period until October 2011.” However, the code adds that, should any significant changes in the timing arise, “steps should be taken to communicate these to potential consultees”. The Planning Advisory Service discussion thread suggests that DCLG has been in touch with some local authorities to update them on progress, but most of the comments on the thread complain that information has not been forthcoming.

– The code of practice also states that the government should, following a consultation exercise, provide a summary of who responded to the consultation exercise and a summary of the views expressed to each question. The DCLG has yet to do this.

PlanningBlog asked the DCLG whether it intends to push ahead with the reforms in the consultation, when it is planning to publish a summary of responses to the consultation and whether it had communicated to potential consultees any change in timing to the measures set out in the consultation. A spokeswoman said: “Ministers are considering these issues.”

The code of practice states: “Deviation from the code will, at times, be unavoidable when running a formal, written, public consultation.” It adds: “It is recommended that departments be open about such deviations, stating the reasons for the deviation and what measures will be employed to make the exercise as effective as possible in the circumstances.”

In the case of the planning fees consultation, this would be a start. If the policy is a non-starter, the government needs to say so immediately. If the plan is not yet dead in the water – as Clark’s recent statement that the government is currently considering the consultation responses suggests – then the DCLG needs to quickly provide a clear timetable for its implementation. The wait continues… Picture by Alan Levine.