Reforms to planning laws, which make it easier for small-scale residential extensions, could cost council tax payers hundreds of thousands of pounds. The arrangements are a step in the right direction as they cut red tape and help families improve their homes. They are a vast improvement on the original proposals that we vigorously opposed in London, which would have led to a free-for-all and would not have given neighbours the opportunity to comment. However, we must ensure local tax payers do not foot the bill.
Under the reforms passed in Parliament this week, all extensions beyond 3 metres which would no longer need planning permission, will still need an application for 'prior approval' - even the non-controversial ones. These will need to be processed and the neighbours notified. Even more work will be needed if neighbours object, including an impact assessment. Some applications may also end up at planning committees which attract further costs.
At the moment, councils can charge fees for planning applications. However, under current proposals, the new system of 'prior approval' will be free of charge. It is also very likely that the relaxation of the planning rules will lead to an increase in applications for home extensions - indeed this is the point - all of which will have to be processed for free. Without a fee, there would be nothing to stop people making endless applications until they got the 'right' result (or even if they wanted to amend something that was previously approved). Although only adjoining neighbours can formally object, anyone will be able to comment and these comments will need to be processed.
Councils up and down the country, including London boroughs, should be able to charge applicants to cover their costs, otherwise these costs will fall on the general council tax payer. Even if the initial application is free they should at least be able to charge if an impact assessment and decision is required.
Cost aside, it is also vital neighbours get the best chance to have their say in any planned extensions. It would be better to extend the notification period to 28 days or to make it 20 working days to cover times such as Christmas or bank holidays. Otherwise families could take a much-needed holiday, only to come back and find that their opportunity for comment on a neighbour's extension has been and gone, and the extension may already have started.
In addition, current rules place an overall limit on extensions of up to 50% of the garden land. The problem is that this includes the front and back gardens - so if a property had a very large front garden, an extension could potentially take up the whole of the back garden and still be within the limit. So to prevent further 'garden grabbing' arising from these new laws, the safeguards should be tightened so that no extension can be built on more than 50% of the back garden of a property.