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Bill amended to allow ministers to pilot competition in processing planning applications

Published: Thursday, 7th January 2016

Planning minister Brandon Lewis has announced proposals to pilot competition in the processing of planning applications.

This move was signalled just past midnight on Tuesday in the Commons during the first session of the report stage of the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill.

Opposition MPs complained the plan would “weaken the accountability of local planning services” and risked undermining local planning departments.

The proposal to test whether planning could be speeded up if “alternative providers” handled planning applications is the subject of a number of amendments to the legislation proposed at the end of last year after the bill had completed its detailed scrutiny by a committee of MPs.

Lewis said the amendments would give the Secretary of State the power to introduce pilot schemes “for competition in the processing of applications for planning permission”.

The SoS would have the power to designate who could participate in a pilot which would be for “a limited period specified in regulations”.

He explained provisions in the bill would allow regulations to be made for the “setting, publishing and charging of fees by designated persons and planning authorities in the pilot areas, and for the refunding of fees in specific circumstances.

“They would also provide for the Secretary of State to intervene when he considers that excessive fees are being charged”.

The minister said regulations would be drawn up “to provide for the sharing of information between designated persons and planning authorities in pilot areas, and with the Secretary of State”.

Lewis stressed that the scheme would be confined to processing applications and would not mean competition in determining planning applications.

He told MPs: “Let me be clear: this is about competition for the processing of applications, not their determination.

“The democratic determination of planning applications by local planning authorities is a fundamental pillar of the planning system, and that will remain the case during any pilot schemes that the Secretary of State brings forward.”

Lewis insisted: “These new clauses will allow us to test, in specific areas of the country and for a limited period, the benefits of allowing planning applicants to choose who processes their planning application”.

He added: “That will lead to a more efficient and effective planning system, better able to secure the development of the homes and other facilities that our communities need and want.

“Introducing choice for the applicant enables them to shop around for the services that best meet their needs. It will enable innovation in service provision, bringing new resources into the planning system and driving down costs while improving performance.”

At the same session during the early hours of Wednesday (6 January) Lewis confirmed that  the Secretary of State’s scrutiny of appeals involving housing proposals in neighbourhood plan areas will continue for a further six months.

View a transcript of the debate

Roger Milne