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Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House has considered these draft regulations, which were laid in draft before this House on 27 May. If approved and made, these regulations will introduce fees for new permitted development rights that are currently, or will be, conditional on obtaining prior approval from the local planning authority. These permitted development rights relate to constructing additional storeys on existing dwelling houses, changing the use of commercial, business and service-class buildings to residential use and the development of university buildings.

I turn to the details of the regulations. A fee of £96 for prior approval is introduced for the enlargement of a dwelling house by construction of additional storeys made under class AA of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the general permitted development order. This fee reflects the resourcing impacts on local planning authorities in processing such applications, and it is the same as the fee for applications for prior approval for larger home extensions. This is less than the fee for a planning application—£206—had the permitted development right not been introduced.

A fee of £100 per dwelling house is introduced for prior approval for the change of use from commercial, business and service use, or class E, to residential use, or class C3, under class M(a) of Part 3 of Schedule 2 to the general permitted development order. Responses to the consultation for this permitted development right indicated support for the introduction of a fee per dwelling house to help to meet the costs of local planning authorities. There was support for a higher fee, but we believe that a fee of £100 per dwelling house meets the right balance between encouraging development and meeting the costs of determining such applications.

Finally, a fee of £96 is introduced for prior approval for erection, extension or alteration of university buildings made under class M of Part 7 of Schedule 2 to the general permitted development order. The introduction of a prior approval condition was a response to the concerns raised at consultation. The fee reflects the costs to local planning authorities in assessing these types of application and is the same level as fees for other applications for other non-residential prior approvals where a similarly limited number of additional matters are required to be considered. The development rights to which the fees relate have already been introduced. If these planning fees are not introduced, the cost to the local authority to process these applications would have to be funded, or would continue to be funded, by taxpayers.

We have announced ambitious reform of the planning system to support the delivery of more homes as well as key transport and infrastructure projects. The draft regulations that we are debating today reinforce our commitment to ensuring that local authorities have adequate resources to deliver a high-quality planning service. I commend the instrument to the House.

I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Jones. The noble Lord, Lord Jones, is not with us today, so I will move straight on to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan.

My Lords, today’s Committee consideration is about fees, not about the merits of permitted development rights. It is about whether local authorities receive an income commensurate with the need to encourage and ensure that the relevant properties are developed. On the basis of the evidence of the consultation exercise undertaken, I believe that the Government have struck the right balance, although I note that there may be dissenting voices, particularly to the effect that £96 might be too low a figure for a local authority to provide this service.

As the Minister said, these draft regulations will allow councils to collect fees for prior approval applications in relation to new permitted development rights, allowing class E commercial to residential conversions, the addition of extra storeys on top of existing buildings and, most significantly, for PDRs related to universities. I had expected the principal concern to be whether the £96 for universities fully reflects the possible developments, which could be considerably more complex and far-reaching than the limited addition of extra storeys on top of existing buildings. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could explain the Government’s thinking on this and the basis of the charge for universities for prior approval for a university building.

Of course, these regulations are part of the changes to local plan-making and methods of making developers and houseowners contribute to the infrastructure that supports their schemes, and can thus be seen in the context of the forthcoming planning Bill. The question whether these are reasonable sums to cover the proper resource for local authorities and planning departments has been well made and answered by my noble friend the Minister.

Permitted development rights since 2013 have had far-reaching benefits. Costs should naturally fall on the owner or developer, not the council tax payer. It is right that these categories of development should not have to go through the whole planning application system, and I only wish that, when I was Planning Minister, PDRs had been a key tool in the planning system armoury at that time.

The new planning Bill is intended to ensure that local plans provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different categories of land, and will no doubt have an impact on the charges made here. Fee structures will no doubt need to be further reviewed as part of the changes to planning policy. However, I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm that these charges do not impact on or change local planning oversight and local authority responsibilities and powers as applicable to PD rights. For example, can he confirm for the record that the powers that local authorities retain to intervene about the aspect of the building, the effect on traffic, flooding and impact over, for example, an aerodrome within two kilometres—to name but a few—remain untouched by this measure? The rights to intervene are critical, not least in town centres, and with these rights continuing in place I hope the Committee will join my noble friend the Minister and approve these regulations.

Finally, on a related yet—I totally appreciate—separate issue, I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister could also update the Committee on the Government’s intention to introduce map-based and interactive local plans based on data standards and digital principles. At the start of this month, the Government announced funding of £1.1 million for a pathfinder programme involving 10 local authorities and council partnerships testing digital tools and data standards in a local plan preparation before more formal proposals are brought forward. I would be grateful for any further update that the Minister can provide, although I fully appreciate that this question goes beyond the scope of the regulations before us, which I support. In this context, I would therefore be happy if the Minister could write to me on the subject.

My Lords, I believe that the fee of £96 is fair. Permitted development rights have an important role to play in the planning system. They provide a more streamlined planning process with greater certainty, while at the same time allowing for local consideration of key planning matters through a light-touch prior approval process. Permitted development rights can incentivise certain forms of development, providing developers with a greater degree of certainty within specific planning consents and limitations. Individual rights provide for a wide range of development and include measures to incentivise and speed up housing delivery. The 2021 regulations will expand the scope of existing permitted development in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and, for the first time, even prisons.

A full impact assessment of the effect of these regulations is being prepared by the Government and will be published. I believe that the regulations will provide more housing, which the UK especially needs. Can the Minister tell us whether there will be more affordable social housing for teachers, nurses and doctors?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan—especially during Wimbledon and on the day of England’s critical game at the European Championship. It causes me to wonder whether the expansion of sporting facilities is encouraged at all by the new permitted development rights.

I rise mainly to speak in support of the regulations. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his clear and succinct explanation. I have an interest as the chair of the new House of Lords Built Environment Committee. We have today announced an inquiry into “Meeting the UK’s housing demand” and hope to hear from as many people as possible. Our first oral hearing is next Tuesday, 6 July, and subsequent ones are at 9.30 am on Tuesdays.

One strand of our work will be on skill shortages and assessing whether the professional and other skills required to meet housing demand—for example, in the construction, planning and design sectors—are being tackled adequately. One of the issues we face is a dearth of planning staff following pressure on local authority budgets, Covid and the need to consider and process development applications across the country, partly as a result of the changes that provide the context for today’s draft regulations.

I support my noble friend the Minister’s proposals to charge fees for these new areas of work. It is essential that planning departments have the capacity and professionalism to do a proper job. Planning fees are an important source of finance for councils seeking to provide a good and timely service. My only question is whether the fees are high enough. Take a proposal to add storeys to a home, terrace or block of flats. There may be quite a lot of factors to consider, such as light and design, and representations to process—for example, from those who live underneath the new developments. The Minister may like to comment on this and any plans he has to keep the fees under review.

I thank the Minister for the full explanation of the regulations in the paperwork that has been circulated and the impact assessment relating to the original order, which I found very interesting. I note from page 8 of the Explanatory Memorandum that another impact assessment is being prepared and submitted for independent assessment. Why is this not available now? The whole point of these assessments is to inform intelligent decision-making. It is virtually pointless ex post.

My Lords, the Government’s planning overhaul represents a developers’ charter to remove powers from elected local representatives and hand them over to Whitehall-appointed boards of developers. I believe this legislation is a small part of that overhaul.

The instrument before the Committee introduces new application fees for permitted developments, as we have heard, such as projects to add additional storeys and convert shops to houses. While we can all accept that these charges must be part and parcel of the planning system, I still have huge concerns that these are enabling the Government’s decision to take away the ability of local communities to object formally to inappropriate developments. All the while, there is still nothing to solve the growing affordable housing crisis that our country faces.

I will focus on the specific provisions of this instrument. I would appreciate clarification from the Minister in three specific areas. First, on the question of commencement, the Minister will note that the provisions come into force on the 28th day after the day on which they are made. Can he explain the Government’s reason behind this? Have they taken steps to ensure that there is not a rush of applications immediately before the commencement?

Secondly, on the exact fees, it appears that two of the fees being introduced are £96 while a third is £100. Can the Minister explain this discrepancy? As other contributors have asked, is the Minister certain that they have been set at the right level? Will they adequately provide funds that local authorities need to deliver this important area of work? I add my voice to the request that they be kept under review.

Finally, on the broader issue of implementation, can the Minister confirm whether the department has estimated how many applications these fees will apply to and how much revenue will be generated as a result?

As I said, the Government’s planning overhaul is a developers’ charter. We can all see that this is only another part of their strategy to do away with the normal scrutiny and oversight provided by local authorities and communities. I look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. This has been an interesting and short debate. I am very keen to hear my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s deliberations from her work on the House of Lords Built Environment Committee. It is really important that we think about the steps we can take to increase the supply of housing but also ensure that we get the right built environment.

I will turn to some of the other contributions. My noble friends Lord Moynihan and Lady Neville-Rolfe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, all raised adequate resourcing and fees. The proposed fees are considered to meet the right balance between encouraging development and meeting the costs of determining such applications. The new fees introduced by these regulations have been considered as part of the full regulatory impact assessment for the permitted development rights legislation. That will be published in due course.

I am glad to assure noble Lords that we will continue to keep fee levels under review and maintain discussion with local planning authorities and users of the planning system. The change will come if it is indeed required.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned data standards and site selection. Data standards in local plans are key for increasing accessibility, transparency and improved decision-making in the planning process and wider planning sector. Local authorities will work with the support of MHCLG to develop and test data standards through the site selection process.

There has also been quite a bit of work on digital. The Housing Minister has announced a £1.1 million fund to test the use of digital tools and data standards across 10 local areas. This pathfinder programme will look at the digital transformation of local plans, which will increase community involvement and speed up the planning process.

The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, wanted to know whether, and be assured that, there would be adequate provision of affordable housing, in particular for key workers. First of all, there is the importance of additionality in permitted development rights. Some 72,000 new homes have been delivered under such rights in the five years to March 2020. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for more affordable housing with the commitment to £11.5 billion as part of the current affordable homes programme, the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade.

I do not recognise the description of this as a developers’ charter, which the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, raised. Indeed, I assure my noble friend Lord Moynihan that local authorities can remove a permitted development right where they are justified to do so in line with government policy by making an Article 4 direction. We recently consulted on proposed amendments to national planning policy on the circumstances in which an Article 4 direction could be used to remove permitted development rights. Further announcements will be made in due course.

In conclusion, planning fees are a vital source of income for councils to ensure the delivery of a well-resourced, effective and efficient planning system that underpins housing delivery and economic growth. I firmly believe that these regulations will support local authorities to have the capacity to consider these applications, play their part in creating new and improved homes and local communities, and support the economic recovery and growth our country needs. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.