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Councils' planning costs outweigh fees by £20m

By Richard Johnstone | 16 September 2011

Councils in Scotland are spending £20m more on processing planning applications than they receive in fees, according to Audit Scotland.

This gap must be addressed ‘urgently’, the watchdog said in a reportpublished yesterday, Modernising the planning system.

The auditors found there had been some improvements since the Scottish Government introduced a new planning strategy in 2008. In particular, the six main public bodies that are consulted in the planning process, such as Scottish Water and Historic Scotland, were working better together.

However, this had not led to a reduction in the time taken by councils to decide on applications. Only 65% were decided within the recommended two months in 2009/10, compared with 63% in 2004/05.

In the same period, costs increased by 17%, despite the number of planning applications falling by 29%. This had created a £20.8m gap in revenue, which the planning authorities – 32 councils and 2 national parks – had to fund themselves.

Audit Scotland called for more detailed information to be produced on the efficiency of planning authorities’ work and for examples of best practice to be spread.

John Baillie, chair of the Accounts Commission, said the ‘unsustainable’ gap between costs and fees received, which has risen from £6.7m six years ago, needed to be addressed.

He said: ‘Our planning system plays a key role in sustaining and growing our economy and shaping our communities. The time taken to decide planning applications is not reducing and the gap between income and expenditure is widening and becoming unsustainable. Councils lack detailed information on the costs of handling planning applications.

‘Understanding these costs and why they have increased is a necessary first step in identifying where efficiencies can be made. Councils need to make progress on this as a matter of urgency.’

Independent planning advisors Planning Aid for Scotland said the report recognised ‘the progress that has been made in modernising the planning system’, but agreed that ‘important work remains to be done’.

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