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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON, QC, MR MIKE ASH, MR JEFF CHANNING AND MR CHRISTOPHER BOWDEN

TUESDAY 18 DECEMBER 2001

  80. Under Erskine May, when the Secretary of State is unable to take a decision for whatever reason there is a special joint committee set up.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Under the Highways Act?

  81. Under any Act. This particular case refers to a bypass scheme in Stoke on Trent. The difficulty I have had is that there appears to be a conflict in the two documents before us and the evidence you have given this morning. The first document is "Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change" where you say that there will be a new parliamentary procedure for approving projects in principle before detailed aspects are considered at a public inquiry. You also say that there will be robust arrangements for prior public consultation. In the major infrastructure projects at paragraph 19 the terms of reference are that Parliament will consider the principle of the need for and location of a project. What type of parliamentary procedure do you envisage because that was a fairly straightforward case. It took us three and a half weeks including one site visit. Why do you think a parliamentary committee on a particularly complicated project is going to spend any less time looking at it than a public inquiry? What type of parliamentary committee? Is it that type or is it going to be a different type of parliamentary committee that you are looking at?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In relation to the procedure to be used, what the document proposes as a basis for consultation, though it is a matter for Parliament to decide, is the sort of process used in regulatory reform orders. I am not clear what the statute or process you are referring to is. I have in mind the one used on regulatory reform type orders which would involve a parliamentary committee having received a series of documents setting out the proposal and the objections to it, there being a timetable for that. It would then consider it in such a way as it thought was appropriate. We believe that would be a very much quicker process than a public inquiry process because it would focus on the principle, the location and the need for the particular development.

  82. You are overturning a fundamental principle of planning law that planning authorities should take a local decision to affect the local people living near that project. Parliamentarians by definition have to declare that they have no vested interests. They will not be familiar with the area and they will therefore not be bureaucratically accountable for where that location is.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I am not. The current situation in relation to every single major infrastructure project over the last decades was that the Secretary of State called it in from the local authority, so the decision currently is made by the Secretary of State after a public inquiry. These proposals will involve the decision in principle being made in effect by Parliament.

Chairman

  83. The difficulty the Committee is in is that major infrastructure projects in both paragraphs 29 and 30 seem not to lay down very precise rules and yet you seem to be saying that they would absolutely be necessary. Perhaps you would like to go away and give us a very detailed explanation of what it is you think you have told us today.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I accept the point you are making. It is not detailed in the major infrastructure project document. It sets out a possible way because we took the view that ultimately the precise procedure to be used is a matter for Parliament.

  84. You do not think uncertainty causes very great difficulty in planning?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Uncertainty in the result, at the end of the day, as to what the procedure—

  85. How you get to a result. You do not think uncertainty in that confuses applicants?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Indeed I think it would. What we have done is put down one particular proposal as to how it should be done.

  86. Perhaps you would like to give the Committee a detailed note on the various alternatives because you must have thought about it in very great detail.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We have. I would be more than happy to do that.

Miss McIntosh

  87. Could you answer my question? Why are parliamentarians better qualified than a planning authority to take these decisions?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Currently, planning authorities do not take major infrastructure decisions. They are taken by the Secretary of State. Where it is a major infrastructure project, we think it appropriate that Parliament and the Secretary of State be involved in the decision.

  88. You do not think NIMBY will be a factor?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We have taken the view that Parliament should decide or assist in the process of making the decision about whether major infrastructure projects are acceptable.

Ms King

  89. I want to go back to what local residents will decide and what Parliament will decide. Could you explain why local residents would get more involved with what you have set out than they currently do with the UDP, because although I think we should simplify things the UDP is quite a powerful mechanism for community involvement and I do not see anything that powerful in the Green Paper.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The local development framework would have to specify the statement of community engagement—i.e., one of the issues which would have to be addressed in the local development framework was how you would engage the community both in updating or changing the local development framework and in relation to individual applications for planning control. It would be one of the things that had to be set out. Secondly, there would be a positive benefit to any developer in consulting the community before any planning application was made. Thirdly, we would wish to increase the resources available to bodies like Planning Aid so that the community in the appropriate case would have the benefit of expert assistance. Fourthly, by simplifying the process, you make it much more accessible to the community as a whole.

  90. How will people see that their views have been taken into account?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In relation to individual applications for planning control, the earlier they get engaged in the process the more likely they are to influence what actually happens. The easier the process by which the local authority consults the community again at an earlier stage, the more likely an individual's voice will be to affect what occurs. One of the problems at the moment is because it takes so long to produce a local development plan, once it is produced, the process by which it is changed is very complicated and very long. Local authorities are quite unkeen for understandable reasons to get engaged in it. If you have a process that is simpler, it will be much easier for those necessary changes to occur. Where you are dealing with action plans, which is what this consultation document also refers to—for example, in an area that needs regeneration—the process for producing the action plan will not be a process that is necessarily district wide; it will only be neighbourhood wide if it is for a particular neighbourhood so you would have a process much more focused, closer to the community, by which you produce that action plan.

  91. Would not the ease of updating the local development framework increase the power of local authorities over communities?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I do not think so. Remember, the local development framework has to include a statement of community engagement. The process by which it is updated can only take place once the local authority has gone through all the right processes for engaging the community. We would also very much want to involve local strategic partnerships in the process by which the plan is drawn up so that you engage the community that way as well.

Mr Betts

  92. At present when an application comes in for a particular development, the UDP has defined what the land can be used for and therefore most of the argument, if it is a development in keeping with the UDP, will be about the nature of the development and the community will be consulted. Under your proposals, if there is no land use laid down for a particular area, the proposed application comes in and the arguments will be about whether the development should go on at all and it will take a lot longer, will it not?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If there is no action plan, that is right. If you have a system whereby the local development framework does not have a site specific use for that particular site and you have not got an action plan it will take however long it takes.

  93. There will be an argument about where as well as the nature of the development?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

Chairman

  94. You move back one step rather than forward.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In certain cases, I suspect the control application would not necessarily take longer but you would have a clearer plan because the plan will have been produced much quicker.

Christine Russell

  95. I would like to know what evidence you have based this utopian vision on because at the moment local communities only tend to get involved in the planning process when there is a planning application that has been submitted that will affect their neighbourhood. Why have you this confidence that local residents, local communities, local tenants' groups or whatever will get more engaged and more involved proactively in preparing these community plans and frameworks than they are at the moment in the formal process of developing local plans?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I agree with your first proposition. The time at which neighbourhoods most get involved is when there is a particular application for a particular use. We hope that people will become more engaged in the development of the local development framework because the people drawing it up have to focus on the issue how do we engage the community for this process. Secondly, it will be simpler. Therefore, the process will be one which it will be easier for people to engage in. Thirdly, where an action plan is involved, it will involve an issue about what happens to the neighbourhood at neighbourhood level, so it will be closer to the community than many development plans currently are.

  96. Do you not accept that at the moment someone buying a property in a certain area has a sense of security knowing that the nice meadows in front of them will remain as meadows?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  97. You are developing a system that gives rise to a lot more insecurity than there is at the moment.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not think that is right. The system that we are proposing is about how the process works. It is not, for example, threatening the green belt. It is not, for example, threatening the environment. It is all about how the process works, not about the basic policies.

Sir Paul Beresford

  98. I think what she is getting at is you have told us about a system that is quicker and you have the plan. If an application comes in that does not fit the plan, you can very quickly go through the procedures and go back a step to change it. Hence the insecurity that Christine Russell has mentioned.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) What is the point of a system that goes through every single site in order to get a development plan which leads to years and years of delay? Surely the right balance to strike in relation to that is to have a development plan that deals with the critical issues—namely the principles—deals with those areas where there is likely to be applications or issues about land use. You then have a plan that is usable, simple and that deals with the main issues, rather than the current system where sometimes you do not have a plan at all and if you do have a plan it is quite frequently so large and complicated that it is inconsistent with other layers of the process.

Mr Betts

  99. If someone buys a house, they have a pretty good idea, if there is an area of vacant land next to it, what could potentially be built on there. Under your system, there is no area plan and people would have no idea whatsoever.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) People will know what the basic policies are.


 
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