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


Examination of Witness (Questions 426-439)

LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON QC AND MS SALLY KEEBLE MP

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001

Chairman

  426. Can I welcome you to the Committee and to our inquiry into sport, open space and recreation. Could I ask you to identify yourself and your team please?

  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am Charles Falconer, Minister of Planning, Housing and Regeneration. This is Sally Keeble, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions with responsibility for planning and housing and also with specific responsibility for green space. She is the Chairman of the Urban Green Spaces Task Force and has day to day responsibility for the development of PPG17.

  427. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or go straight into questions?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Can I say very briefly a few words and then we will go to questions? As has been made clear in earlier evidence sessions by officials, it is government policy to promote and preserve good leisure, including sports, open spaces and recreational facilities. Land use planning has got a crucial role in developing and implementing that strategy. Local authorities should develop local strategies as an integral part of their community strategies for sports, leisure and open space. Land use planning is only one method by which government policy is delivered but it is an important one in this case. The aim of the draft PPG is to ensure that sports, green space and recreational facilities are no longer the Cinderella of the planning system but something which the local authority focuses on in determining what the needs for the area are so that one can determine what should be preserved and what further facilities should be promoted. The document that we are looking is only a draft. This Committee and other people have identified a number of weaknesses in the document: lack of clarity, insufficient joining up with other parts of the system, lack of connection with the planning gain system, insufficient involvement of the community. Many of the issues that are identified are criticisms of the planning system as a whole and they will be addressed in the Green Paper on planning that is coming in the course of next month, though I am perfectly happy to discuss them in the context of PPG17 today. Both before and after PPG17 the purpose of the final document is to ensure that the system preserves and promotes good sporting and other leisure facilities and open green spaces. Subject to you, Mr Chairman, I propose that Sally handles matters covered by the detail of the PPG, including the role of assessments and the setting of standards, the protection of open space and sports facilities, and material arising from the Urban Green Spaces Task Force, and I will handle questions about the role of the PPG in the context of the planning system as a whole and any proposals for reform in relation to the planning system.

Mr Betts

  428. I was interested to hear your catalogue of accepted criticisms of the guidance that have been made to us by a number of witnesses already. One of the criticisms that has come across over and over again is that the PPG concentrates first of all on quantity rather than quality and also it deals with the provision and creation of new open space rather than what happens to existing open space. In the light of the switch with PPG3 to push development back into urban areas on brownfield sites, is it not true that PPG17 ought to start addressing the issue more? What can be done to enhance the quality of existing open space, much of it declining with poor levels of maintenance?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Let me put that in context. What PPG17 is trying to do is that it is saying that local authorities should define what their needs for all sorts of sports, recreation and green space facilities are. Having assessed what their needs are, both in terms of quality and in terms of quantity, they should then identify what they have already got and what further ones they need. Only once they have done that will they know what should be preserved and what should be sought for the future. If they do that it will be much more easy to promote development in the sort of area that you have identified, and also identify what should be preserved.
  (Ms Keeble) In terms of protection, can I point you to paragraph 24 of the PPG which deals with this matter about PPG3? It says that it makes clear that lands, which is parks, recreation grounds, playing fields and allotments, must not be regarded as previously developed land which can be targeted for additional housing development. I think that is quite clear. There is a problem in terms of some of the small informal spaces to which people attach a lot of value but which have not been formally classified as parks, and I am sure lots of people are aware of those. Those are some of the issues which the Task Force is also going to look at. The Task Force is also very interested in some of those small informal areas and the way in which they are used. In terms of the protection, that is specifically dealt with in the PPG.

  429. There is also the question of the enhancement and maintenance of these spaces and if you were to go round urban areas you will get very close to some of the new housing developments we are trying to encourage. They are pretty run down. The playgrounds are almost useless. The playing fields are not maintained properly. The standards are very low. Is it your view that the guidance as it is can address those issues or does it need to be improved?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The guidance as it is is dealing with planning. It is not dealing with maintenance after they have been developed or what is happening to them at the moment. Surely the right way to deal with it is the local authority should identify what it has got at the moment, what it needs to do with what it has got at the moment, not just in planning terms but in maintenance terms as well. That is an issue beyond planning. One of the criticisms that has been made of this document is that it does not adequately connect in with community strategies or strategies that local authorities should have for green space sporting and leisure facilities generally. I think we have to recognise what the limitations of the planning system are. All that they can deal with is whether or not you allow existing facilities to be developed or whether you give permission for new facilities. What the planning system cannot do is determine how facilities are maintained after they are there.

Chairman

  430. Why not?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Because planning is about determining what you do with land, whether you allow it to be developed. You can help by making decisions about the design of what is proposed to ensure that maintenance would be easy, but I do not think the role of the planning system is to say, "That site is not being maintained properly. Therefore we intervene in some way."

Mrs Dunwoody

  431. One of the specific criticisms of the PPG is that the design of recreational facilities was not clear and there was not explicit guidance.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In relation to design issues where an application for development is made I think the planning system has got a role to play and setting quality standards for sports, recreational and green space facilities is something the planning system can do. Mr Betts's question I understood was about—

  432. The two things are directly connected. If you do not put the quality into the guidance then people cannot maintain it. They are not unconnected.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I agree with that.

  433. It does not cease to exist once you have given permission for it to be built.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I entirely agree with that. That is why good design is something one should focus on in relation to planning and if and in so far as I was suggesting that planning had no part to play in determining how things would be maintained afterwards, then I am wrong. Obviously they have got that design aspect, and we should be promoting good design which we hope they will do by producing guidelines and good practice that will accompany PPG17 when it becomes a final rather than a draft document.

Sir Paul Beresford

  434. You have mentioned several times that the local authority should be assessing need. How do local authorities go about that? It is one of the questions we have asked some of the others. I am saying this in the light of the fact that many local authorities will assess need according to demand. One of the problems of anyone with any interest in sport in this country is that we need to generate more sport, more activity and thereby generate more demand. I know that Australia suffered rather badly on Saturday but that is an exception. One only has to look at our performance and the reaction of our athletes in Sydney to the facilities offered there, to the attitude there, to the whole drive for sport. If you are sitting in Tower Hamlets and the only patch of grass is something that is weed coming through the pavements, it is pie in the sky.
  (Ms Keeble) There are three issues there. One is about the assessments, one is about the space standards and the other is about the quality. In terms of the assessment, there is a large chunk about that in the PPG. It is quite right that local authorities should assess local needs and that should be in terms of sporting needs, and also recreational needs and the needs of people like in Tower Hamlets simply to have a bit of green grass and a bit of open space. It is quite right that they should make those assessments in the light of their local circumstances. There are then issues about space standards. Sport England has done a lot of discussion around that and have opened up the whole issue about the kind of standards for sporting facilities. Where there are no space standards are on land for recreation and open space, more general requirements for a local community. There is the old playing fields one which is a bit formulaic and in some ways not terribly helpful. What one of the working parties of the Task Force, and in fact your Committee adviser is on it, will be looking at is the possible space standards for open spaces and seeing if we can produce something that will ensure that there is some sort of minimum guideline that people can work to although there is an issue there about whether it is acres per population or whether you say it is so many minutes' walk from where people live. There are two different approaches to that and I suspect that the second will be more useful. In terms of the quality, obviously again Sport England has got particular views and advice to give about the quality of sporting facilities. There is a real issue in terms of the quality of open space and recreational facilities and play areas and things like that for children in particular, but also for people with disabilities and other groups. This is one of the things that the Task Force is looking at and is particularly concerned about—that it is not just a question of having the amount of space. It is whether it is usable space, it is whether there are the kinds of facilities there that will provide a good quality experience and constructive things for people to do in the green open spaces.

  435. Thank you. The answer had a lot more "shoulds" than "hows" but I will leave that. One of the things you raised was the minimum standards. One of the difficulties with minimum standards, if I look at some of the avaricious developments around, is that minimum standards will then be taken as the maximum and you run the risk of a challenge if you want to raise those. How will you deal with that?
  (Ms Keeble) That is obviously one of the key problems about having a minimum standard, that it does tend to become a maximum. However, you have to set against that the fact that at present, for example, for spaces like Tower Hamlets, there is nothing that says whether the people living there should be able to access any green space, and since a lot of them live in flats they are not going to have back gardens. So there are real issues, I think, about saying should we look at making sure that there is some kind of a standard or benchmark set, which is an improvement on the old playing fields one, which will deal with some of the access issues and with issues of disadvantage.

Mr Betts

  436. Can I make one point on the issue of maintenance that I raised before. We seem to be getting back again to the usability of open space, its quality. Again, you were saying to us earlier that the planning community deal with that where there is a development taking place and could control the quality of that, but all these issues, particularly for existing urban areas, are back to existing open space, in fact we are back to the issue of maintenance every time. How are we going to link it?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That is a complaint about the planning system, is it not, at the moment, which is that the planning system does not connect in enough with other policy?

  437. Can you sketch that in?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) One of the issues that the planning Green Paper will address is how do you connect what the land use planning system is doing with things like community strategies for local authorities, with for example regeneration proposals in a particular area, with, for example, policies in relation to social exclusion? You frequently find for example that there is a regeneration planned in a particular area, yet another part of the local authority, when dealing with planning issues, is pursuing a completely different course. You therefore need, when development plans are being set out in a particular area, to make sure that the development plan is consistent with whatever other policies that land use may affect and is consistent with those policies that the local authority are following. Here what you would like would be local authorities to have general policies in relation to the identification and preservation and development of new leisure space, new sports space, reserving green space, maintaining it well, and a land use planning series of policies which exactly reflect that. They would have an overall policy on, say, green space which will include good maintenance and where they want to develop new ones. Their land use planning policies, the local development plan, would reflect them. That is not what happens at the moment.

Dr Pugh

  438. Thank you for that admission. You did say at the start that many of the points you picked out which were critical of PPG17 were about the general planning process but some are quite specific to the PPG and in particular the absence of any emphasis on hard surface spaces, the concentration on vegetation, greenery and so on. Is that a real omission? Should that have been in PPG17?
  (Ms Keeble) That comes down to your definition of what you consider to be an open space and a green space. What we take this PPG to refer to, and you can see there is a variety of definitions in the PPG, is that it would be green spaces primarily and spaces that are used for recreational or leisure purposes so it would not include pavements and home zones.

  439. Squares?
  (Ms Keeble) It would include green squares but probably not the paved over squares.


 
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