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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-293)



Mrs Dunwoody

  280. So what are you suggesting?
  (Mr Russell) We do believe there needs to be something in between, in most cases. We certainly believe that there should be a sub-regional tier in between but not in all cases. Again, I think we disagree with our colleagues from the County Surveyors' Society because we do not necessarily believe that it needs to be virtually universal across the UK; we believe that where it is necessary to make that gap between the regional and the local level there should be some system of sub-regional planning which is perhaps slightly more informal than a formal basis but sets a framework. It would, in our view, be a combination of districts, unitaries and counties and it may or may not accord to county boundaries in certain parts.

Christine Russell

  281. Can I move you on to transport planning. Do you accept that a lot of the planning nightmares we are all still suffering from since the eighties is where you had the district giving planning consent for out-of-town retail parks, out-of-town business parks and not co-ordinating with their colleagues at County Hall who should have been making sure there was adequate provision for public transport, for instance? Therefore, what are your views on how you could integrate transport and planning if the county structure was abolished? Do you accept that it does not always work in practice now, the present system, and do you see any way it could work in future, other than the process in the Green Paper—the integration of transport?
  (Mr Deegan) One of our major reservations about the proposal to do away with the sub-regional tier is exactly about the integration of plan-making with delivery mechanisms such as transport. There are others as well, I believe. We do not think it will work effectively and, therefore, we have real reservations. We think that the appropriate way forward is for integrated development frameworks at the sub-regional level which link in the instruments of county councils and other agents which deliver transport in a more effective way and tie them into the planning process. We do not believe that can happen under the proposals that are being put forward in the Green Paper.
  (Mr Baker) From my perspective, one of the reasons that I am in support of a strong sub-regional tier of planning is exactly that—the transport and land-use planning inter-relationships. It was one of the things that we actually looked at when we did the earlier research for the DETR on the structure planning process, and why we came to the conclusion that there were certainly issues that needed to be dealt with, including transport, at a strategic level, that we did not feel could be adequately addressed moving upwards to the regional level, because the regions are simply too large, nor with the increasing divergence between implementation and the local level because districts are not transport authorities, and so on. There was also the fact that it quite often crossed boundary issues, such as a new retail proposal, for example, that had impact beyond the district—that needed to be dealt with at a sub-regional level. That is one of the reasons why I am in support of a strong, sub-regional tier of planning.

Dr Pugh

  282. On the issue of Local Development Frameworks, I think my question is largely directed at the planning officers. You favour flexible Local Development Frameworks but you also want retention of the development plan system and all the statutory backing of that. Does that not really heighten the possibility of there being conflict?
  (Mr Russell) I think not. I think what we are saying is that nationally there should be some flexibility. What might be a Local Development Framework in Coventry may be different from Surrey Heath and may be different from Manchester and may be different from somewhere else. What we are saying is that there does still need to be a plan-led system as the basis of making development control decisions. At the end of the day, all of the plan-making is to try and achieve consistency and fair decisions on people's planning applications. I think that when planning has been in the doldrums it has, perhaps, been because of systems where there was rather less fairness and less transparency in the decision-making process. I think that a robust, plan-led system is essential to support fair and open decision-making on individual applications. That is why I think it is important that we have an LDF which has clear policies and clear criteria in it against which fair and open decisions can be made.

  283. In giving your blessing to Local Development Frameworks are you not acknowledging that there has been a problem in the past, in the sense that the wider vision a council may have for its area is not linked to the planning rules and regulations?
  (Mr Russell) I think that is right. I actually think that a lot of comments which the CPRE and Friends of the Earth were making in answer to your earlier questions were very pertinent, because certainly we would see one of the fundamental changes in the Green Paper which has perhaps not been picked up as much as the others is the relationship between planning and community strategies. It seems to me that that is one of the fundamental changes which the Green Paper is proposing. I think there are issues as to what the precise relationship between them will be, but it does seem to me that if community strategies develop in the way which I think we all hope they will, as integrated, community-led, approaches of vision and reality, I think the important thing is to make sure that the LDFs fit into that and are able to deliver some of the extremely difficult decisions that need to be taken. I am not quite so concerned as our friends who were sat here before us were on the basis of time-scale. They were saying, yes, community strategies are very new, we do not know what will happen, but presumably by the time LDFs have gone through the statutory process and the first few are up and running, community strategies may well be past their fifth or sixth birthdays. I would hope, by then, they will have become mature and developed and the relationship will be able to be created.

  284. Would it be fair to say that you would be very sorry if this element of the Green Paper was to go by the board?
  (Mr Russell) We would, yes.

  Christine Russell: Can I ask for your views on the proposal to give officers delegated responsibility for 90 per cent of planning applications? Do you feel that potentially that could lead you into conflict with the public? What are your comments on whether this is further evidence of weakening the democratic accountability of the system? Do you welcome it as professional planners?

Mrs Dunwoody

  285. Would you not be a lot richer?
  (Mr Deegan) We have offered no view on this. I think it is entirely a matter for the Planning Officers' Society.
  (Mr Russell) As someone who has about 85 per cent delegation at the moment, an extra 5 per cent does not worry me.


  286. Would the 5 per cent be the difficult ones, though?
  (Mr Russell) Actually, I do think 90 per cent is slightly too high. As you will know, we have had this 80 per cent of applications with an eight-week target—the famous one—for many years, and that assumed that 20 per cent of applications were sufficiently difficult or complex, or whatever it was, to require longer time to determine. It does seem to me, therefore, that whether or not we have abandoned this target in favour of a rather more flexible approach now, there has always been an acceptance that at least 20 per cent of applications were probably fairly controversial in one way or another. That would seem to me to, perhaps, be a rather more appropriate target—if one needs to set a target—than 90 per cent. Certainly I would be honest enough to say that the 90 per cent is the one area in the Green Paper which, speaking with a Coventry hat on, has worried my councillors more than any other.

Christine Russell

  287. Is your local statistic, of 85 per cent already delegated, fairly common throughout most of the country?
  (Mr Silvester) It is commonplace, actually. Seventy-five, 85 is not uncommon at all.


  288. How long does it take to train a planning officer?
  (Mr Baker) It is a four-year degree programme at under-graduate level or it is another degree plus a two-year post-graduate programme.

Mrs Dunwoody

  289. Are you really saying that young students do not see any future in it because they see no exercise for their imagination and their ability?
  (Mr Baker) I think that is part of it. Clearly there are a lot of reasons why people will not choose to go into planning. One of the problems is that students do not necessarily leave school knowing what planning is about and tend to do degree subjects that are linked to school subjects they are already taking. So they have already got to make a leap into wanting to do a profession that is not a school subject, and then choose town and country planning as part of that. They do see allied professions, such as architecture, as being more exciting and there is clearly much less of a problem in attracting people to do architecture than there is to do planning—though, interestingly, at the end of the degree course it is clear there are more jobs available for planners than there are for architects.

  290. Is that something that should have been included in the Green Paper very specifically?
  (Mr Baker) Certainly I think there is an issue over recruitment that needs to be addressed at all levels. It is something planning schools are grappling with, it is something that the Royal Town Planning—

  291. But it is wider than recruitment.
  (Mr Baker) It is something that probably needs to link into a fundamental reform of the system, looking at ways of making sure that it is attractive for young processionals to move into.
  (Mr Silvester) Part of the issue for local authorities is that young planners have to do fairly mundane jobs, fairly basic jobs; you are dealing with the student inquiries, you are dealing with the development inquiries, etc. So those people coming out of college with grand ideas do not get to deal with the grand ideas for a number of years. We have a view that if we could let the planners plan and have people who are trained in a different way to deal with the other areas of activity—planning technicians, call them what you will—with different levels of expertise, it would enable the process to be dealt with much faster.

Christine Russell

  292. Can I ask you briefly if, in your professional view, planning is still too much a male dominated profession? Would the system be improved enormously by an influx of lots more women planners?
  (Mr Silvester) No, I do not think it is, actually.


  293. We want a very quick answer: yes or no?
  (Mr Silvester) In my office there are more females than men.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.


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