Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

TUESDAY 16 OCTOBER 2001

PETER ELLIS, DAVID WILKES, PETER MATTHEW, PHILIPPA DREW AND NIALL MACKENZIE

  80. That is alright, in terms of you charming your colleagues, but what about the rest of the members of the Urban Task Force; are they going to be satisfied as to whether they have got what they want in, or not?
  (Mr Matthew) There are two ways, as I said earlier on. There is the question that we did make a representation; but I think one of the things the Task Force wanted to do was to get a more focused look at the whole question of planning and management, and I think this is where we need to look at the work that is coming out of the working group. And I think, in a sense, that working group will signal the issues that they feel the guidance really needs to take on board.

Christine Russell

  81. The 1991 version of PPG17 stated quite clearly that local authorities were expected to make assessments of the recreational needs of their local population and to set standards. It is very clear, from everything that we have read in preparation and what we have heard this morning, that, in fact, very few local authorities have actually done that, yet you are repeating the same advice in the draft; so what confidence have you got that they will do it now when they quite patently did not take your advice from the 1991 version?
  (Mr Ellis) I think, in many ways, that confidence actually comes from the elevation of the language that we use; we are actually placing, if you like, the survey of the area and the analysis of that survey in the context of forward planning much more clearly than we did previously. There is, I think, a very excellent section at the beginning of the PPG where it lists what we actually expect of a local authority. There we have the word 'should': "should assess the range of existing and future needs; should establish the quantity, quality and accessibility of facilities," and so on. The fact then that those assessments, that forward planning, are put at the heart of the protection of existing facilities underlines the importance and creates that pivotal role, which actually gives the local authority the understanding that they have here an exceedingly important tool to their forward planning, to their decisions on planning applications.

Chairman

  82. 'Should' does imply that you do not have to do it; why not have something 'must'?
  (Mr Ellis) If I am told I should do something, I tend to jump, but that just might be my upbringing!
  (Mr Matthew) I think, Chair, certainly, there is a legal guidance, and I think it was Lord Justice Woolf, and the legal advice is that, essentially, policy-makers can, in a sense, seek to require action, but certainly in the context of central government there is still scope for local authorities to consider the extent to which they can comply. I think there is a distinction in law between 'must' and 'should', in that regard.
  (Mr Ellis) I mentioned, at one stage, Chairman, that our desire is to have the policy in this document as sharp as we can make it.

  83. And you think 'should' is sharp enough?
  (Mr Ellis) It is certainly the sharpness we have used, for example, in the PPG on planning for housing, which has actually created a change in the way the local authorities actually deal with that topic. I think the language of 'should', rather than 'think about' or 'these things are useful' is actually very helpful.

Christine Russell

  84. Could I go on to ask you whether local authorities should or must consult local communities when they are assessing local needs for open space and recreation and sport, because, again, there is no mention about the need to consult local communities in the draft?
  (Mr Ellis) I would ask David to go into the machinery of the words in there, but certainly the intention is that local communities' involvement is essential to this process. The 'should', if you like, is picked up in the guidance we issue on how everyone actually tackles the preparation of UDPs, local plans, and so on; where there is the expectation that the communities will be consulted. So, clearly, on the information that has been assembled on assessment of need, what that community actually required; that consultation—that dialogue actually, I think, because consultation can be a take it or leave it—it is a dialogue, with public participation, I think it is very important, yes.
  (Mr Wilkes) I think we would accept there probably is no specific reference, not that I can see it in the section on assessment of needs, which requires local authorities to consult local communities on these issues. I think one could suggest it is probably an omission here. I would say, however, that the basis of the planning system is participation and consultation; the development plans process starting-point is participation and consultation. So I think it is inherent throughout the whole of the planning system that that would happen; but, clearly, a specific reference may help in this context.

  85. Could I perhaps, just briefly, ask Philippa Drew or Niall Mackenzie about cultural strategies, because there is often a disagreement or a heated discussion inside town halls and county halls about where exactly to locate responsibility for open space. Do you believe that the consideration of open space is a legitimate part of the preparation of a cultural strategy for an area?
  (Ms Drew) Perhaps I could draw your attention to the guidance which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issued about local cultural strategies, it is this document, which was issued about a year ago, in which we say, we describe what the scope of culture is, because your point is, I think, a very good one. And we list there, we say, under the heading of 'Culture has a material dimension', we list, of course, the performing and visual arts, media, film, television, libraries, museums, built heritage, and then list, very specifically, the bits that you have referred to: "sports events, facilities and development, parks, open spaces, wildlife, habitats, water environment and countryside recreation, children's play, playgrounds and play activities and informal leisure pursuits." And then they go on to talk about the tourism, festivals and attractions. So I think the answer to your question is yes.

Chairman

  86. So how many of these cultural strategies have you actually seen?
  (Ms Drew) I have to confess that I have not seen any of these cultural strategies; in my job, they do not come across my desk. But if you wanted some examples I am sure we could find them for you.

  87. We were told that there was an overload of strategies; perhaps it would be helpful if you could tell us how many local authorities have actually come up with them, and perhaps give us one or two examples of good ones, where play and other things like that have really been included?
  (Ms Drew) May I submit that in an additional memorandum?

  88. Yes, certainly.
  (Ms Drew) Certainly, I am very happy to do so.

Mrs Ellman

  89. The draft PPG talks a lot about the need for high quality open space; who defines that high quality, and what does it mean?
  (Mr Ellis) Forgive me, but it comes back to the process for assessment by the local planning authority. We do not define quality in the PPG, because quality is not an absolute. What we do is to use the word, I think, throughout the document, to drive home the need to think in qualitative as well as quantitative terms. I think I mentioned a few moments ago that we are very conscious of the risk of planners counting facilities without thinking in terms of whether whatever they are actually counting is meeting, or can meet, the needs of their community, because of its quality. There is good practice guidance from people like the Sports Council, when it comes to sporting facilities; we heard from the Countryside Agency this morning on their advice when it comes to green areas, on what quality can mean. Now quality obviously will be firmly anchored in the context of that community and what can be provided. The key in the PPG for the land use planning system is that we move planners away, as I mentioned a moment ago, from counting beans to thinking as to whether or not that particular facility, be it open space, be it a built facility, is actually performing as it should for their community.

  90. Can the planning process incorporate the need to maintain high quality?
  (Mr Ellis) There is a tricky issue here that we have to address. In the sense that what land use planning is focusing on, what the PPG is about, is controlling the use and development of land in the interests of the community; so it is dealing, in effect, with new development. We want to ensure that the strategy in the plan relating to these themes interlocks properly with what the local authority are producing in their community strategy, in their duty of well-being, but we cannot, through the PPG, deal other than in one or two circumstances, which I will come on to, with the quality of existing facilities. It deals with quality by actually looking at the assessment in those terms as well as actual numbers.

  91. You said, the "existing", let us now move to new proposals, which will come against the planning process. Can the concept of the need to maintain high quality be incorporated into planning guidelines for new proposals?
  (Mr Ellis) We say in the PPG that when you are looking at the additional facilities that are required by a new development one does not necessarily look to add extra facilities to a community's portfolio, if the need of that community is to improve what it has already.

  92. No, I want to keep to the very specific point I have raised, which is a proposal to produce, let us say, high quality public space, and the local authority, whoever it is decides, defines that in the way they think is appropriate. Now my question is, is it possible to incorporate in the planning process the need to maintain that space at the same quality, acceptable to the local authority, through the planning process? Is it possible to incorporate that in the planning process?
  (Mr Ellis) I am sorry, I am struggling slightly, because the answer is a bit of 'yes' and a bit of 'no'. Yes, in the sense that good planning is about good urban design, it is about ensuring that what we have in the way of built and unbuilt spaces in the community work properly, in terms of their accessibility, in terms of the way they are designed—because of the need for community safety and security. So, you can set out clear criteria for what is expected, and with new development ensure that that new development is drawn up to reflect those particular requirements. There are certain times where the new development can be linked with the enhancement of existing facilities, or indeed there can be links made through Section 106 for the future management of that facility. But for land use planning to actually bite on the management of existing facilities, outside what you can connect via new development, is actually, I think, straying beyond the purview of land use planning.

  93. I am focusing on new facilities, not existing ones. Let me ask you more specifically. Section 106, what is the scope for extending the definition of Section 106 to include a requirement on a developer to maintain a facility?
  (Mr Ellis) As you know, Chairman, I think we are going to be publishing, before too long, a consultation paper on how we use planning obligations/Section 106s.

Chairman

  94. "Before too long"; could you define that a little bit more precisely?
  (Mr Ellis) It is seen to be, quite rightly, part of the Planning Green Paper package, so it will either be towards the end of the year or at the beginning of next year. As you know, unfortunately time in these matters is never quite as accurate as I might like it to be, but certainly before too long: the turn of the year. One of the issues that we are addressing in there is the very concern you describe. What is it right for the planning system to actually seek to achieve in the way of securing the facility, the scope of the sort of facilities it might like to secure, and then, having secured that facility for the community, what role, what scope, is there for the planning system to ensure that that facility is maintained in the quality fashion that can contribute properly to that community's need? There is already some scope; whether or not that scope is sufficient is something that we will be exploring, because, quite rightly, there is concern amongst some users of the system that the current guidance is drafted in a way that perhaps does not allow for sufficient opportunity.

Mrs Ellman

  95. Will the new consideration that is being given to this issue be related to the conclusions you reach on PPG17?
  (Mr Ellis) In the sense that what we will be looking to do is to ensure that the work we undertake on finalising the PPG connects properly with the way thinking is going on that particular issue then the answer is yes. Obviously, if we are publishing a consultation on planning obligations, if there are elements of that which are less certain than others, we will have to actually reflect on that about the time of finalising this PPG.

Mr Betts

  96. Can I just pick you up on this, because I think it is an important one. And I understand what you are saying about PPGs and effectively they are dealing with individual planning applications and how they are treated, but we have already talked about the links into the UDP which should form the framework, and there they are attempting to do a bit more, they are attempting to look at the needs of a community and how they should be met. That then links into the regional planning policies, it links into the efforts of bodies like Sport England and the countryside bodies to make sure there is a proper provision on the facilities within their remit. And therefore the issue is made which is absolutely crucial, whether it is about maintenance of existing historic parks, or sporting facilities that were built 20 or 30 years ago, if you are trying to look for the delivery of a provision for the community then what is done already and whether it is going to be there in ten years' time is surely just as important as dealing with new applications. How is this linked together, because it seems to many people out there that there is a lack of joined-up government going on somewhere in all this?
  (Mr Wilkes) I think you have to accept there are limitations on what can be done in terms of maintenance and management of facilities through the planning system, but, equally, in the context of a local authority, the local authority can develop a strategy, as part of their community strategy, where they have a duty to provide well-being for the people who live in that area. Now one of those elements will be access to good quality sport and recreational facilities, and if there is a management issue involved in that then I think that is an issue which the local authority has to address through their own community strategy, the corporate elements of that. It is not a specific planning issue.

  97. Is guidance given from the Department, about best practice, about how this might be done?
  (Mr Wilkes) I am not acquainted with all the detailed guidance on community strategies.
  (Mr Ellis) Peter, is this something you have picked up on the Task Force?
  (Mr Matthew) If I could just say, I think one of the issues the Task Force has picked up, if I could put it in those terms, is this interface issue. There seems to be a set of issues which are around planning and design and ensuring that people have adequate provision. And I think there is then a set of issues which is about, well, how do you keep the quality and maintain the quality; and I think, in those terms, I am looking at quality then over the question of to what extent provision is meeting needs. I think the other side of quality is to do with the condition of the space; and I think those two things, at present, there is a difficulty in how we actually join at the middle. And I think, planning, by all means, we can see that there is a clear responsibility in terms of planning and design; in terms of how that links then with the management and maintenance, I think one of the issues the Task Force is looking at is the role of strategies. And I think once we start talking about strategies there is still a question of what is the appropriate strategy for linking the two aspects; and I think that is something that the Task Force is considering carefully and with a view to giving some kind of guidance on that.
  (Mr Ellis) And what we have done for the guidance is to make it quite clear that quality is important. So what we are looking to achieve is that the planners in local authorities are talking properly and doing their forward planning properly, with their colleagues who are responsible for the maintenance and management of these resources, and indeed with the private sector where relevant. What the document is, is a means of ensuring the planning system is doing its part, providing for the future needs of communities. Clearly, part of those future needs is using what you have already properly. It will be for other parts of the corporate entity, the local authority, through their community planning and their duty of well-being, to ensure those elements are being picked up adequately.

Chris Grayling

  98. Can we move on to what is one of my own bug-bears. I think we are terrible in this country at planning new communities, as opposed to building new houses, and all too often, when you get new housing developments, there is a total absence of recreational facilities for children, whether it be younger children or teenagers. Many authorities aim to use the National Playing-Fields Association guidelines, but, as yet, central government has made no pronouncement at all over the desirability or requirements that would be the shape of leisure facilities for the young provided within new developments. Why is that not happening now?
  (Mr Ellis) I would probably, actually in the gentlest terms, disagree with the conclusion that you came to. The whole thrust of government guidance, not just this PPG but PPG3, for example, in its thinking about planning for housing, is the importance of developing communities, not just thinking in terms of bricks and mortar. For example, a few weeks ago, Lord Falconer published, together with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, a good practice guide in support of PPG3, called 'Better Places to Live'. The guide was drafted to serve as a companion to PPG3. It was designed to address how communities are either helped to be created through land use planning or thwarted through land use planning. It talked about the need for connecting with existing communities, for thinking about access. It is just not what you actually provide in that new community that is necessarily important, albeit it can be, it is how you actually connect properly with the wider community. At its basic, is the public transport right? Are you actually ensuring the correct links between a new housing development and existing facilities? Clearly sport, open space and recreation, but also wider facilities, where you shop, and things like that.

  99. I know plenty of areas, I have been involved in, both in my own constituency and in past political roles in areas where you have had new development, where there has not been even so much as a swing and slide, let alone a school, shops, public transport, etc., etc. And, at its most basic level, we all too frequently miss out the local leisure facilities that do not require you to go by bus into town, five miles away, but actually are on the doorstep; and I have had parents in new town areas come to me saying, "We haven't even got a playground." Now why is the Government not setting out minimum standards, minimum guidelines, to say, "At the very least, you will provide this range of leisure facilities within a designated area," of what is often many hundreds of new houses, even thousands of new houses?
  (Mr Ellis) I agree with you entirely that there are too many places which have actually been developed, as I said, as bricks and mortar; which have not actually had the right components to help foster community. Planning cannot create community, but it can actually do its best to avoid it being obstructive. On the issue of whether or not we set from the centre standards, or encourage local authorities to work out their own standards in the light of local assessment; this is one of the issues that we have generally sought opinion on. I mentioned at the beginning, when I was introducing what I was going to say, that the document is consultative generally, because we want to hear what is best for local authorities. Clearly, the current draft is based upon the view that standards should be set locally by planning authorities to reflect local needs and local circumstances. The risk with national standards is that they become a straightjacket, stifling innovation, thought and, indeed, the drive for quality we have been talking about this morning. The advantage, in my opinion, of locally drawn-up standards- benchmarks, I am very aware that the word, standards, slipped into benchmarks this morning—is that when drawn up locally they are best placed to actually fit properly in the circumstances, needs and opportunities of that community. There is a series of thematic benchmarks already out there, which we actually signpost local authorities to; to think as to whether or not in the circumstances of their forward planning they are helpful in that particular context. We mentioned the playing-field standards, for example. What we do not want to actually do is to go down the path of a one-size fits every circumstance. I do not think that is exactly sensible for planning. The thrust of this guidance, if I might be blunt, is to say to local planning authorities, "Do your job properly; look at actually what your community's needs are, assess actually what you require to meet those needs, and through a sensibly put together strategy in your development plan look to deliver on those."


 
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