While the London Borough of Westminster is often regarded as one of the most efficient planning authorities in the UK, the experience for developers in Westminster is far from the norm, with many local authority planning departments hamstrung by a lack of capacity.
This situation has now been recognised by the Government, which has amended the Housing and Planning Bill to make it possible for local authorities to contract out the processing of planning applications. This policy has the potential to generate increased risk for developments, especially when it comes to local opposition campaigns.
As a solution the amendment is superficially neat; clearly addressing the issue and allowing local councils to decide whether they take it forward as an option. It’s been well received by a development community that’s encouraged by the idea of quicker decisions – a necessity if the Government is to meet its target of 1 million new homes built by 2020.
Yet this creates the very real risk of increased local opposition.
The traditional local authority planning department – for all its problems – is at least accepted by the public as the responsible local body. As part of the local council there is also an inherent belief among the majority in democratic accountability and in the ability of residents to influence decisions. Taking the decision outside this environment may create a perception that democratic accountability is being stripped away, regardless of the realities around this.
Outsourcing offers an additional point of attack for anti-development campaigns: creating the potential for developments in areas that opt for an outsourcing model to see increased pressure put on councillors by local people concerned about a lack of oversight or accountability.