In 2017, Telford and Wrekin Council created the “apT” brand for its pre-application advice, and introduced fees for most would-be developers to use it.
Prosperity and Investment Director James Dunn says the service brought in £700,000 last year and has helped shorten the planning process.
But he notes that there is a perception that “applicants will have more chance of a successful planning application” if they use apT, and says members of the public sometimes receive email from “apt-group.co.uk” addresses when corresponding on council matters.
He recommends the service reverts back to “Telford and Wrekin Council – Development Management Service”, but says external work should continue under the umbrella of “biT”, the authority’s design and project management consultancy.
The Communities Scrutiny Committee will discuss his report on Tuesday, October 19.
“In 2017, the Development Management function moved away from its traditional brand and was replaced by apT for all statutory and non-statutory work either within or outside the borough,” Mr Dunn writes.
“This decision was made to support the service, providing ‘enhanced services’, from a reformed pre-application advice service to the discharge of conditions and external work outside of the borough.”
The council is required to provide some planning services, including determining applications to build or convert properties and carrying out enforcement to ensure the rules are followed.
In addition to these, Mr Dunn writes, “the team, as Development Management, offer additional enhanced discretionary services within the borough to applicants at an additional charge” – something some, but not all, other authorities do.
He writes that it was necessary to introduce charges because the number of inquiries was “significantly higher” than the number of paid-for applications.
“Free pre-application enquiries grew to 1,700 in 2016, compared to 1,200 statutory planning applications,” Mr Dunn writes.
“The changes sought to focus on the enquiries that wanted to invest by requesting a fee that was proportionate to the actual time spent and providing a more focussed, high-quality and timely service.”
The fees charged “cover approximately 25 per cent of the actual cost to the council”, he writes, a rate that does not cover costs but is intended to keep the service attractive. Pre-application advice remains free in some cases, including residential extensions.
Mr Dunn notes that, in 2020-21, Telford and Wrekin Council processed 96 per cent of major and 91 per cent of minor planning applications within the required timeframe, compared to government targets of 60 and 65 per cent respectively.
ApT also undertakes work outside the council area, including providing specialist support to planning applications in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Wolverhampton.
“By year four, 2020-21, the service generated an additional £700,000, which has gone towards supporting front-line services across the council whilst also ensuring the service is of a size to react to changes in statutory work,” Mr Dunn writes.
“Concerns have been raised by some members and public around the perception of apT in relation to the department being outsourced to a third-party company and some have quoted that by using apT you will have more chance of a successful planning application,” he adds.
“For example, a resident who makes an enquiry with the LPA [local planning authority] in regard to an application at a nearby address would correspond with the relevant planning officer receiving an email from ‘@apt-group.co.uk’ and a branded signature despite the fact that the correspondence is from the planning officer working on statutory matters.”
Mr Dunn recommends renaming but acknowledges there remains a need to market and provide the service and generate the income.
“This cannot be achieved under the brand of TWC,” he writes.
“As the service area is now aligned with biT, there is an opportunity for TWC to have just one dedicated outward-facing development consultancy.”