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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)

MR HUGH ELLIS, MR NEIL SINDEN AND MR HENRY OLIVER

WEDNESDAY 10 APRIL 2002

  220. You mention that it is about more resources and we can always find ways to spend more money to improve everything, but are there any other ways in which the whole system, without the wholesale structural reforms that you have come out against, could be improved because there is a frustration with the public about the length of time it takes for an individual application and the four years often it takes to do a unitary development plan. Those timescales are ridiculous, are they not?
  (Mr Sinden) Yes, and on the question of resources, you are right. It is very easy to make an argument for more resources, but let's not forget that the Department's own research has identified that the planning resources have declined over the past five to six years by a factor of around 37 per cent. This is at a time when planning has been asked to do more work in terms of the number of planning applications that are being processed and in terms of the proactive approach that the latest legislation requires planning to adopt. So resources is an important issue and it is one that we would urge this Committee to address quite carefully. You are right, that there are a number of ways in which the system can be improved and CPRE along with Friends of the Earth and others have been campaigning for many years for improvements to the system. We believe that public confidence is an issue that needs to be addressed and we welcome a number of proposals in the Green Paper which are designed to—

  Chairman: I am going to have to cut you off at that point because if we are going to get through all the topics that we want to, we shall need slightly shorter answers.

Christine Russell

  221. Can I ask you about the structural changes that you propose because one of the key proposals is to delete one tier of planning. Do you think that is going to be helpful? Will that help to achieve the objectives as set out in the Green Paper?
  (Mr Sinden) We do not. In terms of public confidence, I think there is already a problem whereby people feel that housing levels, for example, are imposed from above, from the regional level, on the local communities and that they, local communities, have very little input into decisions over the scale and distribution of new housing development, for example. I think the proposals in the Green Paper will fundamentally weaken the tier, which currently operates at the county level, and ensures that we have robust decisions on future housing needs which command a degree of public support. This is going to be a problem. We feel that the Green Paper is unhelpfully elusive on how the sub-regional tier is going to operate.

  222. But in your experience, do you not find that county councils, particularly in the larger areas where populations are quite sparse, that county councils and county council planning departments are viewed by local people as being just as remote as regional planners?
  (Mr Ellis) I think that they do, but right through this Green Paper there is a problem which is to say, "Well, public involvement with structure planning can be a significant issue, so let's get rid of it". That is not the solution we would look for, which is for them simply, if you like, seeking to remove a problem by removing a very important tier of democratic accountability. Sure, it should be improved and those improvements I think should be administered, but certainly from Friends of the Earth's perspective, if we are trying to increase public involvement, then why are we seeking to give very important planning functions to regional bodies which are further removed even than counties and which at the moment are not directly elected. It is a really straight-down-the-line issue. If those regions do not become directly elected, they should not be given significant new planning powers because the legitimacy of planning is on the edge and these kinds of proposals will push it over the edge, in our view.

  223. Can I move on and invite you to comment on the criticism of the CBI, for instance, to the current system. They seem to be saying that the present system is over-bureaucratic.
  (Mr Sinden) I think it is interesting to note that in the CBI's formal response to the Green Paper they argue that the system is "fundamentally sound". That is a quote direct from the CBI's own response.

Chairman

  224. They have slightly changed their mind, have they not, because they were the ones in July who pressed the hardest for the Government to do something about the system?
  (Mr Sinden) They did, but I think the agenda for reform that they put out before the Green Paper was published was very much focused on the sharp end of development control and their own control process. I think we would certainly welcome many of the proposals that the CBI put forward to improve the way in which local planning authorities handle planning applications. We are broadly in favour of many of the Green Paper proposals which seek to do that, for example, the idea to publish a user's checklist for planning applicants.

Christine Russell

  225. Can I just ask you to comment on that. Are you actually saying that if the planning authorities were given more staff and greater resources, they could make the present system work far more effectively?
  (Mr Oliver) It is not just an issue of staff and resources, although clearly that is part of it. It is an issue about skills and the culture of the system more generally. One of the things we have recommended in our response formally is that attention also should be given to the needs of members in local authorities and to members of the public in terms of advocacy. Although we welcome what the Government had advanced on that in the Green Paper, we think it has been weak and evasive in terms of what is actually needed.

Mr Stevenson

  226. One of the principal proposals is to reduce national planning guidance and to increase regional planning activity. What is wrong with that sort of proposal in principle?
  (Mr Sinden) Well, we would characterise the proposals in the Green Paper slightly differently. I think the intention, if I am not mistaken, that the Government has is to ensure that national planning guidance is more focused and it is clearer about the policy outcomes that national government is seeking. We have welcomed very much the Green Paper's intention to seek to make the existing suite of PPGs more coherent and more focused, but this should not be at the expense of central, national policy advice. PPG3 on housing is one model that the Green Paper puts forward of where the Government wants to go in terms of what future PPGs should look like and we very much welcome the approach taken in PPG3. This is accompanied by a wide range of good practice advice for local authorities to pick up and adopt in relation to delivering the plan, "monitor and manage" process set out in the framework guidance. So we support, in that context, the Government's intentions in relation to national guidance. CPRE also certainly welcomes the intention in the Green Paper to strengthen the regional tier of planning guidance. We feel that the proposals for regional spatial strategies have a lot going for them. We believe, however, that there is a need for much greater clarity on the relationship between regional spatial strategies and other regional strategies prepared, for example, by RDAs, regional transport bodies and so on. We feel that there should be a clear overarching framework set out in the spatial strategy which should then guide the decisions of other regional institutions in terms of economic investment and transport infrastructure.

  227. Those sort of things can be addressed regionally, especially given the qualifications you have put on that comment.
  (Mr Oliver) Yes, I think there is a crucial question here about competency, if you like to use the European Union terminology. There are certain things which are done best at national level, certain things which are done best at the regional level, sub-regionally and locally, and one of our worries about the Government's proposals is that they do not really appear to acknowledge that issue. They seem to say that it is important to strip out a tier willy-nilly rather than actually thinking about what those tiers do and how they can be better focused on doing what they do best.

  228. The main thrust of your evidence criticising the Government's proposals for the regional tier of planning, if the Government wins in the future, is lack of accountability and vested interests. Is that your main concern in terms of some sort of regional planning structure and if those issues were addressed, would you take a somewhat different view? In other words, is there too much emphasis on the business interest, for example?
  (Mr Sinden) I think regional accountability is a key one, but there is also an issue, as Henry has outlined, about the level at which decisions are appropriately taken. We do not believe it is going to be possible for, for example, environmental impacts of major developments to be properly taken into account at the regional level. There needs to be a mechanism whereby those issues and considerations can be taken into account at the local level, so it is not just about accountability, but accountability certainly needs to be enhanced if we are going to get a regional planning system that the public are going to support.

  229. In that context, therefore, do you think that these proposals for reform of the planning system are premature given the Government's intention to publish a White Paper on regional development?
  (Mr Sinden) I think "premature" is probably a good word in this context. It will be interesting to see when the White Paper does in fact come out how far the Government's intentions in terms of moving forward on the regional governance agenda match up or overlap with what is expected of that tier in the Green Paper. We are not convinced that the Green Paper's prescription in relation to the relative balance between regional and sub-regional decision-making in relation to planning is right at this moment in time.

  230. If the Government can get better regional planning and local planning frameworks, why do you still argue for regional structure plans?
  (Mr Oliver) Structure planning at the moment over large parts of particularly rural England performs an essential role, has 100 per cent coverage, commands quite a lot of public respect, although it is far from perfect. It deals with decisions which the county units are, generally speaking, big enough to tackle strategically, but small enough to command local interest, identification and involvement, and they are also democratically accountable. I think it is an open question as to whether, should we end up with regional assemblies elected, those regional assemblies and regional arrangements will somehow be able to tackle the sub-regional issues. I think it is quite clear from our point of view that the region as a whole will be too far removed and too large to deal with those issues, but there may be ways of devolving from the regional body to tackle sub-regional planning. We have an open mind about that. We are not wedded to structure plans per se. What we do think is important is that the gaping hole that the Green Paper is opening up in sub-regional strategic planning should be filled by something.

  231. What about duplication in structure plans? I think all of us around this table have witnessed that and have experience of that. Is that not an important issue?
  (Mr Oliver) Could you explain?

  232. Duplication.
  (Mr Oliver) In what sense?

  233. Well, in my own area it is not unusual to see structure plans developed in my local authority, which happens to be a unitary authority, and the county council developing structure plans and there is a lot of duplication there.
  (Mr Oliver) In my experience, unitary authorities which produce structure plans, other than, I think, the Isle of Wight and Herefordshire, produce them in conjunction with neighbouring county councils, particularly since the most recent reorganisation of local government. Therefore, I am not aware of there being particular problems of duplication because the plan then produced by the unitary authority will perform the role of a local plan.

  234. While you use "conjunction", I "use duplication". Finally, have you got any comments on the report prepared by the DETR in 1999 which proposed improvements to the structure plan system?
  (Mr Oliver) Yes, indeed. We welcomed many of the proposals which were contained in that document, but I think it is quite interesting that three years ago the Government said that structure planning was a crucial link between regional and local planning which at the time could not be replaced adequately. We have not seen a great deal of evidence in the Green paper, or anything surrounding it, to indicate why the Government has changed its mind so radically. It is also interesting to see that that report suggested that the conurbations should regain strategic planning in the form of some sort of metropolitan county structure that they lost under reorganisation in the 1980s. We have endorsed that because we do not see why, if rural areas have competent strategic planning, conurbations should not.

Mr O'Brien

  235. What do Friends of the Earth think will be lost with the introduction of the new local development frameworks to replace the local plans and unitary development plans? What will be lost?
  (Mr Ellis) Well, I think the first thing to say as a planner is that it is hard from the Green Paper to visualise the planning regime from what is written there. But, as I read it, what we will have in a local development framework are some broad-brush criteria policies which may be very briefly expressed; we will have a statement of community involvement; and we will have some kind of diagram which says that we will have some more action plans here and there. We may or we may not. The critical issue is for me, as a very dull planner, is what is the statutory minimum development plan going to look like. The statutory minimum development plan, because action plans are discretionary, may only contain broad-brush policies and a statement of community involvement. Now, the critical lesson of history which the Green Paper ignores is that when cash-strapped local authorities were given discretion on whether or not they want to draw up very detailed plans in the 1980s, many did not, which is why we had the 1991 Act. So the great fear is that what this seeks to do almost by stealth is to dismantle a very important principle which is comprehensive, detailed plan coverage which contains a proposal map. Everyone I work with in communities understands what a proposals map is. It is a colouring-in exercise and they can see development by their houses and they can see where things happen. Under the new regime, that proposals map will not be there anymore for the whole of the district, so that is the removal, if you like, of a critical element which has been very positive and certainly I think in terms of the 1991 Act and the 1991 amendment has been a step forward.

  236. Are there any advantages in the proposal?
  (Mr Ellis) If you want my honest view, I can see no merit in the proposals on development planning of any kind in the Green Paper. I can see some merits in development control. It is the wrong solution as a result of asking the wrong question and not looking at their own research carefully enough. More importantly than that, if you try and explain to people in the community the principle of twelve criteria-based policies about the future of their district, I think most people will be completely left behind. People understand maps. They get angry about them and sometimes they hate them. Now, the critical thing is that the Minister has said there will be a plan-led system, but it will not be a plan-led system for most districts, especially rural districts. It will be a criteria-based policy-led system because the plan, the physical plan is downgraded. Now, there are only two choices in terms of imagining the outcome. A very rich local authority and a very on-the-ball one might do action plans, subject and area, for all parts of the district, for housing, for Green Belt. It might do all of those things and end up with a development plan and end up with what we have at the moment.

  237. Both of your organisations argue on the question of the third-party right of appeal. If that is not controlled, would it not slow down the process greater than it is at the present time?
  (Mr Sinden) We were very disappointed, I think, collectively. Friends of the Earth, CPRE and a whole range of other environmental organisations did a lot of preparatory work in the lead-up to the Green Paper to assert the positive case for a third-party right of appeal, a restricted third-party right of appeal. We were very disappointed that the Green Paper right from the outset seemed to suggest that the Government was closing its ears to the merits of that proposal. We agree that the third-party right of appeal does need to be restricted, but we also believe—

  238. In what way? How would you restrict it?
  (Mr Sinden) Well, we proposed in a research report that it needs to be restricted to major projects, to projects which are departures from approved and established development plan policies, and a range of other factors which would limit—

  239. Does that not counter what we have just heard, that people want to know what is happening locally, their local issues? If you are saying that it can only apply to major issues, is that not defeating the object?
  (Mr Sinden) Where there are departures from the plan, that is the key criterion from our point of view, so that people can be confident that a plan-led system means just that, that the policies adopted and approved through the development plan process of whatever shape or form are going to be respected and followed as far as possible.
  (Mr Ellis) Could I just add that that research was done at a time when we had a development plan system where you have a right to participate. Now, the Green Paper is removing that right, very clearly removing the right for someone to be heard in front of an inspector at a local planning inquiry. Now, if you remove that right, the case for third-party rights in planning becomes almost overwhelming because it becomes almost the only right there is. I would make this final point. I think it is desperately important sometimes to step back and look at the principles of planning. What this Green Paper is saying, in paragraph 4.27, is that only those people with property rights will have the right to be heard when these action plans are drawn up. We already live with a planning system where property rights almost uniquely give you a privileged civil right of objection. That is the existing planning system. Now, we are struggling to get rid of that system to put us beyond the Reform Acts so that every citizen has equal rights to participate in the system and that has to be right. It is why third-party rights are so important both in the current system and, even more important, if the LDFs come.

 


 
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