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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006

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Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Miss Anne Begg

†Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
†Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
†Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)
†Gove, Michael (Surrey Heath) (Con)
†Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
†Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
†Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
†Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
†McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
†McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
Mates, Mr. Michael (East Hampshire) (Con)
†Meacher, Mr. Michael (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)
†Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
†Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
†Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

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Tuesday 14 March 2006

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006.

It is a pleasure, Miss Begg, to see you presiding over proceedings this morning. These regulations were laid before the House on 10 February 2006. They introduce a new regime that requires the payment of fees by mineral and landfill waste operators in England for the monitoring of their sites by mineral and waste planning authorities. If approved by this House and the other place, the regulations will come into effect on 6 April 2006.

The objective of the proposed regime is to recover the costs of authorities’ essential monitoring of mining and landfill sites according to good practice guidance. Monitoring by local planning authorities of development of all types is not new. However, charging the developer for that monitoring, as we now propose for these two particular types of operations, is new. The implementation of the regulations will fulfil a commitment made in the 1998 comprehensive spending review. That commitment was, when legislative opportunity arose, to extend the scope of charges that can be imposed under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to allow mineral planning authorities to recover the costs of monitoring and enforcing planning conditions.

The commitment recognised that planning application fees do not recover the costs of monitoring and enforcing planning permissions. It also recognised the particular and unusual requirements for monitoring mineral development; mineral planning permissions are implemented progressively as mineral is extracted and land restored.

The process of development sometimes lasts for many decades. Similarly, sites can be used for landfilling waste for many years. It is not a case of giving permission for a site, seeing it built, checking it once and forgetting it; both mineral and landfill waste operations are governed by sometimes complex and technical planning conditions that deal with matters such as noise and dust control, traffic, blasting, hours of working and soil stripping and storage. Such planning conditions are needed to deal with the physical impacts on the environment. Regular
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monitoring by competent authority officers is needed to ensure that essential environmental standards are maintained.

However, monitoring practice by authorities is variable at present. In some cases, it can fall short of the Planning Officers Society’s published good practice by a considerable margin. Operators of mining and landfill sites are beneficiaries of permissions allowing the operations to proceed over a considerable period, and without the extensive planning conditions minimising their environmental impact, these operations would not be approved or upgraded to modern standards. It is reasonable for the operators to support the unusual, long-term monitoring requirement imposed by those extended processes of development.

The widening of the scope of local planning authorities’ fee-charging powers in section 53 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 means that we are now able to implement the fees regime in line with our commitment in the 1998 comprehensive spending review.

The features of the proposed regime have been developed from research studies carried out in 2000 and 2004 that considered various charging options and validated authority monitoring costs. Two subsequent public consultation exercises, in 2001 and 2005, yielded a strong polarisation of views. Mineral and waste planning authorities were in favour of the introduction of a fees regime. Unsurprisingly, the industries were unequivocal in their objection in principle to any monitoring fee regime. However, to their credit, most of the trade associations also commented constructively on how the proposals should be implemented, notwithstanding their opposition. Both the industries and authorities agreed that the structure of the proposed regime, based on a nationally set flat-rate fee, was about right.

The regulations define mining and landfill sites, what constitutes a site visit and who is liable to pay the fee. They prescribe different fees for the monitoring of active and inactive sites. The fee for a visit to an active site will be £288; the fee for a visit to an inactive site will be £96.

An inactive site is one where quarrying or landfilling is not taking place to any substantial extent but could lawfully be resumed, or where development has ceased but the aftercare works have not yet started. Such a site should normally take much less time to monitor than an active site, and would be subject to only one chargeable visit per year.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): The Minister keeps referring to visits. Will he explain who will visit and what the purpose of their visit will be?

Jim Fitzpatrick: As I have been trying to explain, the visits will be undertaken by trained planning officers who will be examining the planning permissions afforded to each site and monitoring them to ensure that they are being enforced. At the moment, the guidance laid down by the Planning Officers Society is not regulated to the appropriate level of effectiveness across the country. The regimes will allow authorities
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to recoup the costs and employ and train staff to an appropriate level to make sure that the planning permissions are monitored, and, if necessary, enforced. I shall come to a little more detail later.

As I was saying, each active site will be subject to a maximum of eight visits per year, for which a fee will be payable. Authorities will be able, of course, to make further visits, but no fee would be payable for those.

Guidance has been prepared to assist the implementation of the regime. I am most grateful for the constructive help that representatives of the Planning Officers Society and the minerals and waste industries have given in commenting on this guidance. That help has included advice on good practice monitoring and the factors that authorities should take into account in agreeing the number of visits.

Generally, there should be no more than four visits per year to active sites that are compliant with planning conditions. Over time, as monitoring according to good practice becomes established, the percentage of sites with four or fewer visits each year should rise.

Many mineral and landfill operators have good working relationships with their authorities; by working constructively together, any problems can be resolved and formal enforcement action can be minimised. We do not want the introduction of monitoring fees to detract from those constructive relationships. We acknowledge the industries’ objection to the principle of monitoring fees. However, in developing the regime, we have addressed some of their concerns about detailed operations.

We have kept the regime as simple as possible. We have restricted the number of visits for which a fee is chargeable, and that fee is considerably less than was proposed following the initial research. However, we acknowledge that the regime introduces a new concept into the planning system—that of charging for monitoring development as it occurs. That reflects the unusual nature of mineral extraction and landfill deposition. The long-term but temporary processes of development, whose physical impacts at sites can be very intense, need to be mitigated through extensive conditions.

In the modern world of environmental protection, no conditions would mean no permissions. That said, we will clearly need to consider how the regime works in practice, and I undertake that we shall review the regime once it has been established and has bedded in—in any event, no later than 2011. I commend the regulations to the House.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The Minister has not mentioned an issue that I should like him to deal with: the rejected option of allowing local authorities to reflect local costs in the fee. According to the explanatory memorandum, that was rejected because local authorities’ accounting systems were not up to the job, but might become so in future. Will he give more detail about exactly what aspects of local authority accounting systems are not up to the job of charging different fees in different areas?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: I am afraid that I shall need to do further research to give an exact response to the hon. Gentleman. However, I can say that there have been two extensive attempts to identify the appropriate regime and that two major consultation exercises have been undertaken with local authorities and the industries to determine which was best.

It was felt that a national flat-rate fee was the simplest and most straightforward way to implement the new charging regime. That fee will be understandable for local authorities and the industries, and appropriate to the task in hand. That is why we concluded that a flat-rate fee with a national charging level would be more appropriate.

10.39 am

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I am grateful to you for calling me, Miss Begg. This has been my first opportunity to speak from the Opposition Front Bench on a statutory instrument; hitherto, my experience of statutory instruments has been restricted to observing them from the Back Benches as the Government have legislated for Northern Ireland. I do not know why I have been restricted to discussing matters related to the Province, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to range far more freely today.

I thank the Minister for the customary clarity and fluency with which he made his case. I assure him and his Back-Bench colleagues that I have no particular desire to add to the woes on his shoulders. We accept the broad principle that extraction creates ongoing environmental costs and pressures that need to be tackled, and that local government inspection needs to be financed appropriately. We also accept that local government needs to be compensated adequately for the additional responsibilities that landfill and mineral sites place on its shoulders. However we have a number of questions to which we would appreciate answers from the Minister before we allow the legislation to pass any further.

The first question is on the fees structure. One of the striking things about the way in which the Government have run the planning system in recent years has been the extent to which fees have played an increasing part in funding local government planning applications while central Government support for local government has diminished. The Government have increased fees by 39 per cent. in the past year, and yet at the same time the planning delivery grant is being cut. As hon. Members know, that is the amount that central Government give to local government to help with the planning process. It will fall from £170 million this year to £135 million next year and to £120 million in the year thereafter. Can the Minister give us any indication of the future direction of the planning delivery grant? Will he assure us that the central Government will play their part in ensuring that planning is delivered effectively? Modern compassionate Conservatives believe in sharing responsibility, and although we recognise that local government has a responsibility, central Government also have a responsibility to ensure that the planning system is properly financed.

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that a number of small borough and district councils in East Anglia are coming up against quite long delays in the planning process because reductions in the planning delivery grant have resulted in junior planning officials being made redundant? The whole system is beginning to get clogged up.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Capacity in the planning system is a real problem. Many local authorities do not have enough planning officers to expedite planning applications and conduct development control. It is an ongoing problem, and I hope that the Government will address it. It may be beyond the scope of the Minister’s comments today directly to address the capacity problem, but the principle behind the regulations—to give the fees structure more of a role to play and give the central Government less responsibility—will only add to the difficulties that local government faces.

The Minister was kind enough to acknowledge that industry had doubts about the scheme, but he was also right to acknowledge that industry has been working with the Government to try to ensure that its implementation is as effective as possible. He will acknowledge that, if there are going to be eight visits to some sites at a cost of more than £200 each, some businesses could be paying almost £2,000 a year to monitor sites. Will he assure us that the voice of industry will be heard in the consultation that he has explained he will undertake to ensure that if the burden is too onerous, particularly on small businesses, the fees structure will be reviewed in the future?

Industry has also made it clear that in return for accepting the fees structure, albeit reluctantly, it wants an improved and more transparent monitoring service. Can the Minister give us any specific guarantees of what improvements will come about in the monitoring service as a result of the extra money going into the system?

Another area in which the Minister must answer industry’s concerns is the question of guidance. The Minister is bringing forward the regulations, but he rightly points out that they were presaged as far back as 1998 in the comprehensive spending review. However, we still have no guidance on how the planning regime will work in practice. I acknowledge that there was a consultation in 2005, but I would appreciate guidance from the Minister on precisely how future guidance notes will govern the operation of the scheme.

My approach is intended to be constructive. We appreciate that on landfill and mineral sites the process of development control is an ongoing obligation. All that we want is that central Government should bear their share of responsibility alongside local government; that industry’s voice should be respected and recognised; and that the system should have the transparency to ensure that all stakeholders’ voices will be heard in the development of an important process.

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The Chairman: Will hon. Members stand up to show that they want to speak? I am not a mind reader.

10.45 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, albeit briefly, to the debate. Given the relatively uncontroversial nature of the proposals, there seems no need for a lengthy speech.

I am a former council leader, and I argued for many years for Government to provide local authorities with resources at a level that would accurately reflect their increasing responsibilities. In many ways, therefore, I welcome the regulations as financial recognition of the work that local authorities carry out. I am intrigued to learn how the precise figures were arrived at, and whether they really represent the cost to the councils of carrying out the important work in question. Perhaps the Minister will say a word or two more about that.

Some councils charge residents hundreds of pounds for mediation on issues such as high hedges, to take one example. Will the Minister confirm whether the regulations mean that council tax payers will continue to fork out for services that should not really fall directly to them? If the Minister could give me some assurances about the consultation and research that was, I am sure, carried out before any conclusions were reached, I should be grateful for that too.

Overall, it is important to recognise the responsibility that local authorities have in ensuring that mineral and landfill operations such as the one in my constituency at the former Adswood tip site in Bramhall meet the modern environmental standards that we have rightly come to expect. I hope that, with the regulations before the Committee, the Government are beginning a thorough reassessment of whether current funding arrangements, especially from central Government, reflect the cost to councils in providing the services in question. If we are really serious about reducing the effect of spiralling council taxes, such recognition, it seems to me, is vital.

10.47 am

Jim Fitzpatrick: May I respond to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) in the first instance on the matter of fees by saying that we carried out research; following the research in 2000, the consultation in 2001 came up with a figure that subsequent guidance said was too high. It was about £360. A discussion—almost a negotiation—between the industries and local authorities took place to try to identify the appropriate fee. That is how we have got to the present point.

The draft guidance on implementation went out in February. Final guidance will be issued by 6 April when the new regime comes into being. We had to wait for the full details of the scheme before the guidance was finalised. At the moment, until we get that, council tax payers are helping to cover the cost; what is happening rebalances the system.

I welcome the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to his shadow Front-Bench position and naturally I hope, on behalf of us all, that he will be there for a long time, and that this is not the only occasion on which I shall face him here. As to the
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planning guidance and support for local government, the figure that is often quoted from the Government Front Bench is that support generally for local government has increased in real terms since 1997 by 39 per cent., as opposed to the 39 per cent. reduction to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The fees that are being introduced are singular. I tried to explain why the structure was being introduced, which was because of the extensive and complex nature of the regimes, some of which last for decades.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the planning delivery grant and we shall keep that under review and try to ensure that the planning system is effective and properly maintained. I cannot give answers this morning, and the hon. Gentleman generously suggested that he would not expect conclusive answers. Obviously, we will keep his comments under review.

On the cost, the small business impact is obviously a concern. We hope and anticipate that the new regime’s transparency will help everybody, especially small businesses, to understand it. Consistency across the country means that there should be less confusion about what is happening, regardless of where a company operates. One way in which we hope to ensure that that is the case is through the production of a report after each visit so that operators can demonstrate what has been examined and what the position is.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Before we go any further, will the Minister confirm that very few small businesses are involved in mineral extraction? In my area, which has been extensively mined and then dumped on, the cost burden of inspections has been borne by council tax payers. The measures are simply redressing the balance as regards the major businesses that have made significant profits out of our local communities.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the additional information that he has brought to the discussion. Bearing in mind the qualification that he
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has just mentioned, I was going to say that although the hon. Member for Surrey Heath raised the possibility that the cost to small businesses would be £2,000 per year, that would be on the basis only of eight visits each year. The expectation is that most operators will be regarded as complying with regulations, so the number of visits should not be eight in every case, but only when there were difficulties or problems. Otherwise, four or even fewer visits might be more appropriate.

We have given an assurance that we will review the scheme by 2011 at the latest. We hope that the money collected under the scheme will assist in the recruitment and proper training of adequate numbers of staff to ensure that we have consistency across the piece.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their questions and contributions, and we shall certainly write to them if we have not covered anything. This is the first time that the wider planning fees have been used and we believe that we are justified in using them now to recover the costs of the long-term monitoring of mineral and landfill permissions whose conditions make such developments acceptable.

We are committed to reviewing the regime within five years. Obviously, the industry can make representations if particular problems are uncovered. The review will consider all aspects of the regime and its operations. Issues such as the level of fees, the impact of fees on small firms and whether recovery based on actual costs rather than a nationally set flat-rate fee would be feasible and reasonable will also be examined. Any changes that are proposed as a result of the review would be subject to full public consultation.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Eleven o’clock.


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