1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

20% hike in planning application fees – a step closer

The Government has moved a step closer to delivering one of the Housing White Paper commitments to increase nationally-set planning application fees by 20% by publishing the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 (Regulations) to bring this proposal forward.

Planning Freedoms

In addition to providing for an increase of approximately 20% for all existing fees, the Regulations also:

  1. introduce fees for applications for permission in principle (regulation 3);
  2. allow Mayoral development corporations and urban development corporations to charge for pre-application advice (regulation 4); and
  3. enable fees to be charged where: (i) an LPA has made a direction withdrawing permitted development rights under article 4 of the GDPO; or (ii) permitted development rights have been withdrawn pursuant to a condition imposed on a planning permission (regulation 5(2)).

Certain applications, such as those for listed building consents and demolition of certain buildings in conservation areas, will remain exempt from fees.

Transitional provisions confirm that applications, requests and site visits made before the date on which the Regulations come into will not be subject to the increased fees.

Ring-fencing additional fee income

The Housing White Paper made clear that the 20% uplift in application fees would be conditional on local planning authorities (LPAs) committing to invest the additional fee income into planning services.  The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) invited LPAs to make this commitment and requested budget information to demonstrate how the additional fee income would be spent on planning services.  Unsurprisingly, all of the LPAs elected to make the commitment.

Nonetheless ensuring the additional income is not off-set by cuts in funding, which undermine the resources for dealing with planning applications, remains a key concern. DCLG’s letter made clear that “ the additional revenue should be retained by planning departments and that existing baseline and income assumptions will not be adjusted down as a result during this Parliament.”   Where LPAs fail to comply with the additionality assurances, the letter confirmed that the Government would consider reducing the fee level for that authority back to the original fee level through a change in regulations.  Whether this is simply an empty threat or whether compliance will in practice be policed, will no doubt become clear.

Not far enough?

Given that proposed planning reforms set out in the Housing White Paper place ever increasing demands on LPAs, there is no guarantee that a 20% increase will be sufficient to maintain ‘business as usual’ let alone deliver a more effective, efficient planning service. Particularly given that fees were last increased back in 2012 and have been gradually eroded by inflation ever since.

Indeed, there are concerns in some quarters that the changes do not go far enough. While the increase in fees will no doubt be welcomed by LPAs, the measures fall short of allowing LPAs to set fees at a local level.  As a result, LPAs in some areas will still not recover their full costs for processing planning applications.  In this respect, the Local Government Association recently warned that tax payers will be subsidising the cost of processing planning applications to the tune of £1 billion by 2022.

Next steps

Once the Regulations are approved by both House of Parliament, the Regulations will come into force on the 28th day after they are made. In the meantime, the Consultation ‘Planning for the right homes in the right places’  is seeking views on when LPAs who are delivering the homes their communities need should be allowed to increase fees by a further 20%.  The consultation closes on 9 November 2017.

What happens to old applications?

The question of what powers LPAs have to deal with old planning applications is raised by both applicants, concerned that their planning application may be unilaterally withdrawn, and LPAs, keen to understand their options for dealing with undetermined applications.

A LPA can decline to deal with an application if: (i) it is not made in the prescribed form; (ii) the circumstances set out in section 70A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (‘TCPA’) apply (namely, the LPA / Secretary of State has refused a similar application in the previous 2 year period and there has been no significant change in the relevant considerations); or (iii) it constitutes an overlapping application under section 70B TCPA.  However, there is no power for an LPA to actually withdraw a planning application.

Instead, an LPA may seek to record the application as “finally disposed of” to avoid the application remaining open indefinitely. What does this mean?  What is the effect?

“Finally disposed of”

The term “finally disposed of” is used in article 40 of the General Development Procedure Order 2015 (‘GDPO’).  Under article 40(2) GDPO, each local planning register authority must keep a register of every live application for planning permission relating to their area.

Article 40(13) GDPO sets out the circumstances in which an application can be treated as finally disposed of.  In summary, this is where an application has been:

  1. granted or refused by the LPA  and the time limit for appealing has expired without appeal;
  2. referred / appealed to the Secretary of State, who has issued a decision and any application to the High Court has been finally determined;
  3. withdrawn before being decided by the LPA / Secretary of State or an appeal has been withdrawn before the Secretary of State has issued a decision; or
  4. finally, the period for determination and appeal has expired no decision has been made.  This means that a LPA can simply record an application as finally disposed of as soon as the period for determination and appeal has expired – so watch for that date.

Once any of these requirements are satisfied, the LPA may treat the application as finally disposed of and elect to remove the application from its Planning Register.

Best Practice for applicants

To avoid an application being finally disposed of, applicants should either: (i) agree to extend the time period for the Council to determine the application; or (ii) if the LPA fails to determine the application within the statutory period, appeal on the grounds of non-determination. Applicants should note that if the application period is extended, the right to a refund is lost, even if the authority fails to meet the extended deadline.

Best Practice for LPAs

Once the date for determination has passed, consideration should be given at regular intervals to whether the application should be deemed “finally disposed of” and removed from the Planning Register. Given the cost and expense of submitting an application an LPA should notify the applicant of its intention to treat an application as “finally disposed of” before doing so.  This should set out a timetable for dealing with any outstanding matters.

Refusal as an Alternative

Rather than recording an application as “finally disposed of”, LPAs could simply refuse the application. However, LPAs are often  keen to avoid this course of action for 2 reasons:

  1. Refusal rates are monitored nationally and, in theory, LPAs with clear policies and effective pre-application advice should issue fewer refusals.  LPAs may therefore be concerned that refusing such application will have a negative impact on their performance figures; and
  2. It would reinstate an applicant’s right to appeal.
  3. Given the above, it is likely that LPAs will continue to treat applications as “finally disposed of” unless a formal procedure for LPAs to withdraw planning applications is implemented.  This is unlikely to be high on the agenda at any time in the near future given the raft of more pressing planning matters.

The need for focus on conditions (and not descriptions) in Section 73 applications

The consequences of failing to restrict use by imposing a condition were highlighted in a recent appeal decision concerning a DIY retail unit in South West London.

Both the original planning permission for the retail unit and a subsequent section 73 permission (granted in 2010) included a condition to restrict the sale of non-food goods.  However, the final section 73 permission granted in 2014 contained no such condition.

In 2015, the appellant sought a lawful development certificate permitting use of the premises for purposes within Use Class A1 without restriction on the goods that could be sold. Notwithstanding the lack of a condition restricting use, the Council refused.  Consequently, the applicant appealed citing the decision in I’m your Man v Secretary of State [1999] 77 P. & C.R. 251, which held that where a limitation is to be imposed on a permission granted pursuant to an application, it must be done by condition.

The Council contended that the original conditions were incorporated by reference to the previous permissions or should be implied, referring to the Reid case which held that it is permissible to impose conditions by reference to an earlier planning permission.

However, the Inspector rejected the Council’s arguments, finding that the principles from Reid could not reasonably be extended to the creation and incorporation of an entirely new condition which does not appear on the 2014 permission other than in the description, in accordance with the decision in Dunnett Investments.  The Inspector held that no condition restricting the nature of the retail use to specific uses falling within Use Class A1 had therefore been imposed on the final planning permission.  Accordingly, the appeal was allowed and the lawful development certificate issued.

So what can we take away from the case?

  1. The importance of conditions controlling use.

The decision in Reid confirmed that, in the case of planning permissions granted under section 73, conditions can be imposed in various ways:

  1. impose fresh conditions mirroring the original conditions save for the variation; or
  2. impose only the varied condition and incorporate the unaffected conditions by cross-reference to the original permission.

However, whichever method is used, any differing conditions must be incorporated in full in the new permission. For certainty, LPAs must adopt a ‘belts and braces’ approach and set out all the conditions to which the new planning permission will be subject, restating any unchanged conditions in full rather than relying on cross-referencing.

  1. The myth that the description of development can be varied by way of a section 73 application persists.

Confusion often arises as a result of overly complex and unclear descriptions of development, which applicants and local authorities seek to amend to accord more closely with the section 73 proposals. However, there is no formal ability under section 73 to amend the description of development.  It is therefore better to avoid references to the use classes, floor areas and number of units in the description of development (where possible), as it invariably acts to constrain the ability to lawfully use section 73 amendments to amend schemes post approval.

Steering clear of amendments to the description of development can help to maintain the focus on varying the relevant conditions, reducing the potential for LPAs to fall foul of this issue. As is clear from the present case, LPAs cannot rely on undefined conditions being imposed or implied into new permissions granted under section 73.

As a final note, we are willing to bet that I’m Your Man will be overturned at some point by the Courts or will be ousted by legislation. A failure to constrain by condition something that was clearly described as limited in the description of development should not, as a matter of fairness, lead to a windfall for the owner and a cost to the community.

Short term rentals – a potential planning issue?

The recent decision in Iveta Nemcova v Fairflied Rents Limited [2016] UKUT 303 underlined the importance of reviewing lease terms (in particular, the user covenant) prior to letting residential property on a short term basis, as set out in our alert.  It therefore seems timely to reflect upon the potential planning issues raised by short term rentals, particularly given the rising popularity of websites such as Airbnb and onefinestay.

airWhat’s the use?

From a planning perspective, permanent use of residential property for temporary sleeping accommodation constitutes a material change of use for which planning permission is required.

Short-term lettings in Greater London are also subject to a further planning restriction in the form of Section 25 Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1973. This makes the use of residential premises as temporary sleeping accommodation for less than 90 consecutive nights a material change of use requiring planning permission.  The purpose behind the provision is to protect London’s permanent housing supply.

The Government introduced an exception to this restriction in the Deregulation Act 2015.  As a result, short term lettings in the capital are no longer deemed a material change of use if:

  1. the cumulative number of nights use as temporary accommodation does not exceed 90 nights in any one go (or any calendar year); and
  2. the person providing the accommodation is liable to pay council tax.

Such use may, nonetheless, be classed as a material change of use under Building Regulations. Consequently, upgrade works may still be required to comply with relevant standards.

The new rules also grant the Secretary of State power to create further exceptions by way of regulations, albeit subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.

Motivating factors

The Government’s rationale for relaxing the rules was set out in ‘Promoting the sharing economy in London – Policy on short-term use of residential property in London’, which came out of a wider review of property conditions in the private rented sector.  In short, the changes were intended to give Londoners the opportunity to earn extra income renting out their property and expand the pool of competitively priced accommodation in the capital, while removing uncertainty caused by inconsistent enforcement of section 25 across London Boroughs.

Safeguards

The new 90 day cap was imposed to prevent permanent temporary sleeping accommodation use. As a further safeguard, local authorities can direct that the new rules do not apply to: (i) a particular residential premise (for example, where there has already been enforcement action against a statutory nuisance); or (ii) a particular area.  However, local authorities can only use this power with the consent of the Secretary of State where it is “necessary to protect the amenity of the locality”.  Time will tell whether these safeguards prove to be effective.

Policy conflicts?

The reforms are consistent with the Government’s broader objectives of relaxing planning laws and reducing the burden of unnecessary change of use applications. However, they would appear to be at odds with the Government’s drive to increase the supply of homes.  It is therefore doubtful that the Secretary of State will make further exceptions to section 25 in the near future.

Improving the use of Planning Conditions?

Too many unnecessary and overly restrictive conditions are still routinely attached to planning permissions, driving up costs and impeding development. It is against this backdrop that the Government proposed further reforms in the recently published Neighbourhood Planning Bill aimed at streamlining the use of planning conditions.

Long game

This is not a new objective. Since the Killian Pretty Review in 2008 successive Governments have been on a drive to minimise the use of unnecessary conditions. For instance, in April 2015 the Government introduced the concept of ‘deemed discharge‘, whereby an applicant can treat certain conditions as discharged if the LPA fails to reach a decision in the requisite time frame. Although the intention was admirable, it is debatable whether this reform has been effective given that the power is rarely relied upon in practice.  As we have pointed out before, part of the answer has to be improving the quality of some applications in the first place and giving a less risky route to appeal onerous conditions.

Current proposals

textThe DCLG consultation ‘Improving the Use of Planning Condition’ (the ‘Consultation’), which was launched in conjunction with the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, seeks views on the Government’s proposals to improve the use of planning conditions and closes on 2 November 2016.

There are 2 key elements to the Government’s proposals:

  1. Restriction on the use of pre-commencement conditions without prior approval by the applicant; and
  2. Prohibition of specific types of conditions.

1) Restriction on the use of pre-commencement conditions

LPAs would not be permitted to use pre-commencement conditions without prior approval by the applicant. By giving applicants an earlier opportunity to challenge unnecessary pre-commencement conditions, it is hoped that a consensus can be reached between the parties at the outset and the likelihood of appeals reduced.  Of course, there is a risk that front loading the process will lead to delays in planning applications being determined.  There are several practical implications:

  • Where an applicant refuses to accept a proposed pre-commencement condition the LPA will have a number of options at its disposal: (i) revising the condition so that it is agreeable to the applicant; (ii) allowing compliance with the condition post commencement; (iii) removing the condition in its entirety; or (iv) refusing planning permission.
  • The threat of refusal may do two things. Firstly, force applicants to consider whether they have really included adequate detail in the application itself. The answer will often be ‘no’. Secondly, accept unsatisfactory conditions in order to secure the permission (particularly where the grant of permission is a pre-requisite for the release of funds), and then use Section 73 to seek to remove the offending condition while avoiding an appeal scrutinising the merits of the entire application afresh.
  • The restrictions will not apply to outline permissions. The Consultation does not explain why.  However, the impact of delays caused by pre-commencement conditions is arguably lessened in the case of outline permissions given that development cannot commence until reserved matters have been approved in any event.

2) Prohibition of specific types of conditions

At present, LPAs have a broad power to impose “such conditions as they think fit” providing they meet the tests prescribed in the NPPF, its supporting guidance and case law.

The Government’s proposals are intended to provide greater clarity about conditions that do not meet these policy tests and should therefore be prohibited. The Consultation sets out examples of conditions that are categorised as unacceptable by existing planning practice guidance and seeks consultees’ views on whether such conditions should be expressly prohibited through legislation.

Given the relevant tests for using conditions are already enshrined in the NPPF and the example conditions set out in the Consultation are effectively prohibited (albeit through guidance rather than statute), the purpose served by this aspect of the reforms is questionable. A more productive use of this legislation would be to use the conditions as a benchmark for reasonableness, and allow binding decisions on them, via the mooted Dispute Resolution Service under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

Conclusions

The reforms are unlikely to herald a new era in which conditions are used conservatively and pre-commencement conditions are consistently agreed upfront without the intention of resorting to Section 73. Bolder reform, providing a quicker right of appeal or up front, binding dispute resolution on this specific point, would be a much better outcome.