The political impact of fast track planning

News that the Government is considering proposals which will allow developers to pay to “fast track” their applications, or even have them determined by neighboring authorities, throws up a series of intriguing questions about the interface between planning and politics.

The concept that developers should pay more for faster decisions, will surely be raising blood pressure levels for everyone who’s ever paid thousands of pounds in planning fees to a local authority and received a dreadful service in return.  No one has yet fixed the brain drain causing many of the best planning officers to leave local authorities for private practice, nor will the ongoing cuts to those same authorities help the problems with staffing levels which cause delay in the first place.  Paying more for those few staff to work faster or harder may well, in practice, simply push those paying current levels of fees further to the back of the queue.

Meanwhile the intriguing idea of creating a market place in determining applications – letting applicants select the authority they submit to – seems like the work of a genius or madman, or possibly both.  Incentivizing authorities to get their planning departments up to capacity and up to speed, in order to win more planning fees and generate much needed revenue, seems on the face of it a brilliant move.  Getting nowhere with Eastleigh Borough?  Get Basingstoke to determine it instead, for example.  The problem with this though is the point at which politics comes in. 

If I’m a Councillor at Eastleigh and a contentious and politically unpopular scheme comes before me, recommended for approval by officers at Basingstoke, I will surely play the ‘local knowledge’ card (“Our colleagues at Basingstoke may well be professionals but don’t share our local knowledge; knowledge which means we know the scheme should be refused)”.  Yes it removes the risk that members can unduly influence their officers in trying to secure a particular recommendation, but it removes a critical democratic element to the planning process.  Members will feel little or no urge to agree with officers they have no relationship with, while if schemes such as this DO get approval having been recommended elsewhere, communities will feel they have lost another lever of control over the local planning process.

There are no easy fixes, but dropping a market solution onto the planning process seems a blunt instrument, and one that might have alarming and undesired results.